Football to close ranks around its 'enfant terrible'

In the fantasy world of the Premier League, Joey Barton will soon be forgiven – but how would the sack help him to rehabilitate?
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We have learnt some facts many of us would possibly prefer not to have known in the BBC's compelling all-week drama. No, not Andy Murray's will-he-won't-he, consummating his relationship with the Centre Court aficionados. But the TV series Criminal Justice. It's not Porridge, that's for sure.

In one of the more palatable scenes, the manipulative prison overlord offers our "hero" a white pressed shirt to attend court. He had wanted to wear one mum had given him. Blue. "It's not a 'jury shirt'," he is told, by the jail's Mr Big with an enigmatic smile. White. That's what subconsciously sways juries that a man's evidence is pure.

Which all made this observer suspect that it's probably just as well Joey Barton elected not to place himself before a jury's deliberations at Manchester's Minshull Crown Court on Tuesday. A pink striped shirt, over which he wore a rather too cheerful red, white and black tie, under a light grey suit would possibly not have appealed to 12 of his peers who had to decide whether Newcastle's midfielder was guilty of ABH when he pummelled his then Manchester City team-mate Ousmane Dabo in a training ground incident in the spring of last year.

In the event, the Liverpool-born player, just completing a six-month prison sentence for another assault, pleaded guilty, and, as we understand it, for taking the only conceivable course open to him, was rewarded when the British justice system did all it could to ensure that football's enfant terrible will be back in training soon. He received a four-month suspended sentence. One cannot help but feel that Joseph Barton, unknown Liverpool council employee, would not have been dealt with so leniently.

Barton constantly disappoints you. He speaks articulately and apparently with candour, as if there just may be a decent young man attempting to extract himself from a horrendously dysfunctional family background – younger brother Michael is in jail for racially motivated murder while another brother, Andrew, and his cousin Nadine Wilson were given suspended sentences for their part in the affray in Liverpool city centre in December – and then does his damnedest to ruin that impression by confirming his full membership of British Yob Culture.

Demands that Newcastle kick him out are understandable, if not entirely logical. If Barton, violent thug and half-decent footballer, is ousted by Newcastle, he'll still be Barton, violent thug and half-decent footballer. Just somebody else's problem. Newcastle know that another club would pick him up at a knock-down price while making reassuring noises about rehabilitating him. Supposing that football collectively left him to rot, would that achieve anything?

Except it won't. He is fortunate. Football is always ready with a consoling, forgiving arm. He will receive chances not always available to ordinary mortals. He has already attended the Sporting Chance clinic, and one hopes he will continue to receive treatment there or somewhere similar. His union rep Gordon Taylor offers support, claiming "I try not to give up on people", and though the PFA chief executive is way off target when he compares Barton's actions with those of Eric Cantona – indefensible though it was, the latter's kung fu kick at a fan at Selhurst Park in 1995 was a one-off reaction to verbal provocation – there is a semblance of truth in his belief that Barton would benefit from community service, coaching youngsters. "The effect it had on Eric, when he realised the impact he was making, was so good for him," he says. "That's exactly what Barton needs."

Taylor knows that in the real world Barton would be sacked by his employers and almost certainly ostracised by society. But in the surreal alternative world that Taylor's members inhabit, we know that once the season starts, one creative pass to fashion a goal, one meaty challenge, and his sins will be forgiven.

There should be no surprise that pragmatism will dictate how he, Kevin Keegan and owner Mike Ashley proceed when they meet. Barton will surely accept a reduction in his £65,000-a-week salary, and constraints on his lifestyle, in the knowledge that no other club of Newcastle's stature will want him. Newcastle know he could not be replaced cheaply.

You sometimes wonder just how bad a footballer has to be before the public mood turns against him. Possibly any crime that doesn't result in the perpetrator seeking security in the "nonces' wing" perhaps? ABH against Dabo, a footballer now playing for Lazio, wouldn't rate that highly. The photos of his injuries may change some minds.

But let's be candid. Nobody would thank Ashley for forcing his manager to sack the errant performer. Until that day comes, we will get the players, good or ill, that we deserve. No, it's not justice. It's football.

Bum steer as Hamilton's whinge backfires

Racing certainty that the Sovereign Series is wrong

There was a persistent whine as I drove my old Mondeo this week. Nothing serious. It turned out to be a Radio 5 Live trailer, constantly repeated, for an interview with Lewis Hamilton.

These words remained with me: "After you've worked your butt off for an hour and a half, they expect you to get out and talk to people. It's crazy." Having listened to the full interview, it became evident the BBC had been selective. The interview was mostly gushing about the 23-year-old and his ambitions of winning the World Championship. But it was that passage of self-pity that stayed with you.

Presumably, he will learn these facts of sporting life: "British driver wins" is a heart-warming story. "British driver smashes into rival at red light in pit lane" is an even better one. It has not been Hamilton's best week, after some lighthearted banter with Jenson Button over who was the fittest man in the Formula One paddock continued with the latter laying down a challenge that he would beat his fellow Brit in a triathlon. It appeared harmless enough but Hamilton's dad, Anthony, withdrew his son. Though on one level you could understand his rationale, it was a poor decision.

These are testing times for Lewis, who must realise that not every season will be a repeat of his debut. With observations like "It's supposed to be a country that's behind me but I don't feel that after the last couple of races", he is on dangerous ground even though he was presumably referring to we, the messengers, not the great British public.

If he had witnessed Andy Murray's experience on Centre Court he will have realised that British support for home favourites rarely wanes. At Silverstone today, the British contingent among the 90,000 crowd would relish nothing better than a home victory. So would the media. Unlike many of his fans, though, our admiration for his talent cannot be unconditional.

It was announced this week that horseracing has introduced a new initiative. Even those of us who love the Turf found our eyes glazing over at the prospect.

It's to be the 10 most prestigious races bolted together as the Sovereign Series on Saturdays, with a points system to produce a champion and a £2m bonus, designed "to strengthen consumer interest and create a new proposition for broadcasters and sponsors", according to Simon Bazalgette, executive chairman of Racing UK (whose initiative this is).

"In five years, we hope it will be established as a major sports competition alongside Wimbledon and the Open." Really?

For most, racing is about us against the bookies. It's about personalities like Frankie Dettori and an appreciation of those magnificent equine stars. No outlay of money contrived at turning horseracing into a series or a championship will alter that.

True, racing has its problems. Gone are the pre-satellite days of a captive audience, particularly on a Saturday afternoon. Those halcyon days will never return. Racing has to accept that and develop its many strengths as sports entertainment. Not try to be something it isn't.

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