FOOTBALL: Barton seeks spirit of role model

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YESTERDAY'S CONFIRMATION that Roy Keane intends to retire at the end of next season is likely to provoke mixed feelings for Joey Barton.

On the one hand, the young Manchester City midfielder can attest to the fact the playing arena will be a much less intimidating place without the Manchester United skipper asserting his authority over every new "wanabee".

On the other, however, Barton will lose his role model, the player who has provided inspiration to the England Under-21 international during the difficult, weeks that followed his part in an ugly incident at the City players' Christmas party last December.

Barton, who had already developed an uncanny knack for attracting trouble, was involved in a fracas with his team-mate James Tandy that ended with the reserve player receiving cigar burns to his eye. Pilloried and shamed for adding yet another chapter to the growing tale of football's Babylon, Barton was given a club-record fine of six weeks wages, two weeks suspended for 12 months, and was left in no doubt he was lucky to escape with his job.

For a 22-year-old whose career has been built on an unswerving self- belief and determination, the shock was immense. And while Barton betrays a slight hint of bitterness at having to carry the can for the spat - Tandy was fined just two weeks wages - he is contrite enough to admit the incident has forced an urgent re-evaluation of his approach to life. That is where Keane comes in.

The very fact that Barton will come face to face with his role model at the City of Manchester Stadium tomorrow tells it's own story about his rehabilitation. But the Liverpool-born midfielder accepts he has a long way to go before the slate can be wiped clean.

"I think as a young man obviously you're going to make mistakes," Barton said. "And the important thing is how you learn from your mistakes. If I were to do something similar again, I would be the biggest fool ever. What dawned on me at the time is that it's not just about me, I'm not just Joey Barton, the kid from Huyton who just happens to play football and can do what he wants and is invisible when he steps off the football field. I've got to say to myself: `you are now a role model for kids and you have to set a good example'.

"You see other players who are remembered for things that weren't on the football field. I sat down with people who are really close to me, said I had made a mistake and asked them how I can put this behind me.

"I could have gone in there and, because Tandy didn't get the same fine as me, said I wanted him to get more. But I thought: `alright, you've made a mistake, now be a man about it. Regardless of what's happening to anyone else, you've done wrong and you have to take your punishment. And you have to learn from it'.

"Hopefully in 10 or 15 years people will look back and say `he had a troubled first few years but he learned from his mistakes and he never did those things again'. I think Roy Keane is a prime example of that. I've read his book and Keane had a lot of problems, going out drinking and fighting.

"And I think Patrick Vieira got sent off a lot in his early days. It's all part of the learning process. It's like everything in life."

If Barton is growing up off the pitch, he is also ready to mature on it and is relishing the chance to fill a holding role, mirroring Keane's position, in the absence of the suspended Paul Bosvelt. The City player, however, knows last season's 4-1 victory in the corresponding fixture will have done little to ease his opponents' mood.

"When we played them in the FA Cup last year, I think he came looking for me [after] about five minutes and said `you little what's-your-name, I'm going to put you in your place'," Barton said.

"It's a good awakening. The senior professionals can teach the younger professionals a lot. I watch Roy Keane playing on Match of the Day and I try and take as much as I can from his game. Along with Patrick Vieira, they are the ones you have to learn from because they're the best in the country at what I'm trying to do."