It is easy to laugh at Joey Barton for speaking to the Oxford Union or tackling a philosophy degree, but his courage actually deserves praise

Here Barton is with his head in a book rather than at the bookies, writes Kevin Garside

It has been a busy week for Joey Barton: an address at the Oxford Union followed the next day by a haircut. If his appearance before the brilliant young things last Wednesday was a leap, the shearing was no less so since it reversed the cultural order of things. When Barton was a lad he would have had the tidy-up before the big engagement.

Barton is an easy target for the sneering tendency, dismissed as a reformed oik, a self-styled spokesman for the football intelligentsia, purveyor of the faux French accent, dispenser of Twitter wisdom via the philosophical quote.

There is a keen mistrust of those who wear their born-again status so visibly. Who does he think he is? Trying to be something he is not, etc. Barton is anchored to a past littered with boorish indiscretion. Dispute resolution was typically violent, the legacy on his upbringing in the working-class hard lands of Huyton.

I prefer this version than the one that stubs fags out on the eyelids of team-mates. Barton is still attached to elements of his old identity and class reference points, but that is not surprising. The direction he has chosen meets opposition from above and below. You can imagine how the Oxford experience was received in L36, arguably with less enthusiasm than it was at Debrett’s.

Barton is one of a cluster of notable footballers from the neighbourhood, including Steven Gerrard. Not sure it has produced too many cabinet ministers, however. That would require entry to Eton, of course, and that was never going to happen.

The grammar school system, or faith schools (Alan Bleasdale), was historically the route out of poverty for the downtrodden. Even that was a long shot for kids from the kind of troubled background from which Barton emerged. In the modern era sport provides that leg-up, coming to the rescue of working-class lads like Barton, for whom a spell in the school library was received like a prison sentence.

These days you can barely keep him out of one. His enrolment at university to study for a philosophy degree is a remarkable step, and potentially his greatest service to the game, for it reinforces the value of learning to a social group dismissive of it.

It cannot have been easy for Barton to present himself for questioning before students at one of the world’s great universities. It will have prodded at insecurities masked on the pitch. Imagine if Barton were to have thrown a QPR shirt at a student and invited him to line up against Yeovil last Saturday. A football blue is nil preparation for the professional game yet that is the kind of equivalence we are talking about.

It is time to pay our respects to Barton, to acknowledge the courage required to substantiate a life that hitherto conformed to the worst of football’s excesses. The passing of Sir Tom Finney drew a line under the immediate post-war epoch when deference was imposed via the minimum wage. Sport’s migration to mass entertainment in the smart phone age enriches even modest talent in a way Finney’s generation could not have dreamt.

This wealth is appropriated largely in the manner of the Lottery winner, effecting an immediate upgrade in house, car and holiday. Barton threw himself into that lifestyle with some gusto. And why wouldn’t you?

Typically, footballers rarely find the keys to an enlightened life. Some even manage to blow the advantages instant wealth confers, on gambling, drinking and so on, reaching a dissolute dead end, the kind of finale to which you imagined Barton might have been heading.

Yet here he is spending his afternoons with his head in a book rather than at the bookies. That has to be cause for celebration, and deserves the wider recognition that social media provides. Barton was quickly on to Twitter pointing his 2.4 million followers, of which I am one, to the highlights reel from his Oxford debut.

After a nervous start he grew into the environment, working out that his life experiences were of unique value in this setting and conferred a kind of understanding of the world that those sat before him just did not have. This is the kind of example disenfranchised kids need. Barton was not turning his back on his past, rather bringing it to bear in a new, enlightened milieu.

There is a poignant parallel in history. The last effects of Tommy Taylor, who lost his life in the Munich tragedy, revealed two self-help books. Taylor was the centre-forward for Manchester United and England, a player of huge standing having scored 112 goals in 168 league games for the red shirt, yet it appears he was searching for a way to greater fulfilment.

It was Taylor’s sister-in-law, gathering up his worldly goods from his digs in Manchester, who made the discovery. “We found two little black-and-yellow books. One was Teach Yourself Public Speaking, the other was Teach Yourself Maths. It broke my heart when I saw those. They showed just how much he wanted to improve himself.”

No one ridiculed Taylor in death, neither should they Barton for new life choices.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future