That description came not from a blinkered Sunderland fan but, or so it is said, the Newcastle United dressing room. Salut! Sunderland applauds a straining-to-be-fair-but-honest appraisal of Joey Barton …
No one living outside the strangely mixed mind of the Newcastle United midfielder truly knows the answer to the question posed in the headline.
But in a brilliant piece, made all the more impressive because she wrote it without obvious access to the man, Louise Taylor – the North East’s second best journalist (ie behind Mike Amos) – gets closer to a balanced assessment of this enigma of humanity than anything I have previously seen.
The easy response to mention of Joey Barton tends to include such words as thug and jailbird. The reference to “complete plonker”, preceded by “great player and …” wasn’t a phrase dreamed up in Fleet Street, but one supposedly used by a teammate. And last weekend, at St James’ Park, he added downright, self-confessed cheating to his darker attributes.
So, denied an interview – though you must never rule out the possibility of off-the-record “briefing” by Barton or on his behalf – Louise was obliged to recall her own previous encounters with the man, and trawl through the cuttings, to produce what stands, I believe, as a classic profile.
Teetotal but still self-destructive, a man who, three years ago, served 74 days in prison for an horrific assault in Liverpool city centre and had previously received a suspended sentence following a training-ground attack on a former Manchester City team-mate Ousmane Dabo, appears badly betrayed by recurring insecurities.
There is the inability to lose face, a need to be the biggest fish in the pond, a difficulty in appreciating alternative opinions, a debilitating self obsession and an overweening sense of entitlement.
Barton’s admirers – and he has a few – claim such traits are offset not just by his tireless, often addiction related, charity work but a searingly quick?witted humour, surprising eloquence and refreshing interest in current affairs.
And don’t forget the grim nature of a childhood spent amid “an often brutally macho, emotionally coarsening, environment where ‘face’ remains everything”.
Louise reminds us of his “astounding” 10 GCSEs, a feat having much to do with the solid, focused grandmother who became principal carer after his parents separated. And whatever we think of Joey Barton, it is plainly wrong-headed to consider him culpable on account of his half-brother, a convicted racist killer.
He has been off the booze for getting on for four years. Louise cautions: “If abstinence from alcohol … has accelerated the break with his past, it never pretended to offer a total solution. As Roy Keane also learned, staying dry does not necessarily guarantee the sort of serenity Barton pursues through regular anger-management therapy sessions.”
Joey Barton remain what he is. His behaviour against Arsenal does not suggest that reading Orwell or having a view on the Labour leadership is enough to produce rational, sportsmanlike attitudes.
And he is also, as has been repeatedly pointed out on this site and elsewhere, a footballer of significant talent. I still wouldn’t want him in red and white stripes.
But I believe in rehabilitation, second (even third and fourth) chances for the apparently irredeemable. And I sort of hope he continues to mature, finds a decent club to play for, shows the world what he can do and completes the cleaning up of his act.
I also hope he delays this transformation until after he commits some incredibly stupid act that gets him sent off tomorrow in a heavy defeat for his club. As Derby nerves jangle, I’m not counting on it. We may just have to win it for ourselves …