James Lawton: Clarity of Barton's words offers hope that his redemption is not an illusion

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Words are just words but then, as a wise man once said, they are extremely useful if you want to say something. Joey Barton had something to say this week and he did it brilliantly, with a strength and a clarity that was only reinforced by his understanding that nothing he said would detach the majority of football fans a single iota from their view of him as a recidivist thug. They may well be proved right.

One glance at his record of serial violence suggests that even Mark Antony might have been inclined to shrug his shoulders and say "Ah, well, perhaps we should just bury the bastard." Yet Barton did say something important this week and he said it for everybody who ever had the courage, or, if you like, the self-interest, to look at his own reflection and see that it was necessary to change, not just to a degree, not to a point of respectability, but in the deepest possible way.

This, of course, will be utterly without value if it turns out that his target audience wasn't principally himself.

As Barton's situation stands, it is impossible for him in one bout in the confessional, however profound, to do any more than acknowledge the extent of his faults and his indebtedness to someone like Kevin Keegan, who at serious risk to his own position refused to pull away a lifeline.

Still, Barton was not obliged to go public this week. He could have weathered the worst of the storm, collected his £80,000 a week wages, and marvelled privately that the faith of Keegan, so poorly rewarded down the years, was now being extended by the latest Newcastle United trouble-shooter, Joe Kinnear. Barton did not duck any of the issues. Nothing he said heaped insult on to the injuries of his victims and when he said that he had been dry for 10 months, this high-profile, sneering, violent exponent of the binge culture did give some tempting evidence that his mea culpa might just be running a little deeper than face value.

Barton certainly didn't make the tragic evasions of, say, Paul Gascoigne, whose life of alcohol and drug dependency has been studded with failed resolutions to temper his behaviour. He once declared that he was now drinking only wine, as if the contents of the glass were in any way as significant as his continued, and increasingly pathetic need to fill it.

None of this is, of course, likely to distract many from the conviction that Barton's ability to practise his lucrative profession, to be living proof that it is possible to break so many rules of decency, is an appalling statement of indulgence by his employers. For such critics, the sight of Barton running out in the colours of Newcastle, once worn by men like Jackie Milburn, George Robledo, Alan Shearer and Keegan, against Sunderland today cannot be other than a sickening provocation.

Yet if there is any truth in the words of Joey Barton, if they amount to more than a brilliant piece of public relations, it is hard not to believe they have the potential to produce a little good in the wake of so much that has been disgustingly bad.

The keynote of Barton's statement, that part of it which is impregnable as a statement of his reality, is worth recalling. "I'm not the first person to mess up but nothing sobers you up like going to prison," he said.

"I know I'm in the last chance saloon. I'm just thankful I have an opportunity. Now it's time for me to keep my head down and let my football do the talking. One thing I know is that I'm sober. I've not had a drink for 10 months, since December 27. That's a start. To say I want to be a different person would be to take away what I am. There are bits I don't want to be and the majority of those things come out when I'm drinking. It's not an excuse – but it is a major part of the messing-up. I know that if I drink again I'm putting my football career in jeopardy. I have to put everyone who has believed in me first and that's why I will not drink again. I feel better instantly."

Ideally for some, there would be more outright contrition. There might even be some eye-catching quote about how terrible he felt when he was shown pictures of the wounds of his victims, something which the Home Secretary recently advanced as a potential wonder solution for knife violence. But Joey Barton lives in the real world, a hard and often extremely unattractive one. He knows the streets and they have come close to taking him down. It is also true that there may be demons in his nature which have still to complete their work, but how many of us contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of our own characters with total equanimity?

At the very least Barton has acknowledged that his continued presence in the top flight of football is a matter of grave offence to many people, who see in their sport a diversion from some of the worst of today's realities. Sir Matt Busby always told his young Manchester United players they had a duty to perform each Saturday afternoon.

They had to carry the fans away from the meanness of so much of their lives, a task perhaps not custom-made for a recent guest of Her Majesty. However, Barton says that he too wants to find a little peace for himself on the green island of a football field. He says he is haunted by the sound of a slamming cell door. Not convinced? Not by mere words, anyway. No one can complain, least of all Joey Barton. He has said some important things about a man's need to redeem himself. Now he has to make them real. He has to prove he is deserving of the right and maybe, this afternoon, by discussing his challenge so honestly, he may just warrant a small and provisional cheer.

Ungrateful Arsenal fans should imagine fate under Comolli

If you're an Arsenal fan bridling under the criticism of Arsène Wenger, maybe you need a touch of perspective. Imagine supporting Spurs.

When Arsenal shareholders complain about a porous defence and three whole years without any kind of title, perhaps they should really be celebrating a brilliant young team and the fact they are managed by someone without equal in the matter of identifying some of the world's best talent.

For several years at Tottenham this job has been in the hands of a football nonentity named Damien Comolli. He did it in the role of sporting director, a job definition whose credibility this former youth player of Monaco has done much to single-handedly demolish.

We are now told that Tottenham's directors, having exposed the club to such ridicule while jettisoning Martin Jol last year, now consider Comolli just as vulnerable as the embattled coach, Juande Ramos. This, bemused Spurs fans must realise, is some kind of start to making Spurs a properly run football club.

There can only be one boss at a football club. He needs to know the game and in his near perfect form he would resemble as closely as possible the man who this week found himself criticised by a number of ingrates otherwise known as Arsenal shareholders.

Lloyd in high-stakes gamble with spirit of cricket

David Lloyd, a former cricketer of distinction who in recent years has emerged as a TV analyst of superb, droll humour and many fine insights, is to be seen hamming it up on a Sky advertisement for the $20m Twenty20 circus in Antigua.

He equates the sporting occasion which begins to unfold this weekend with high-stake casino action, which cannot be said to be an offence against the demands of the Trade Description Act. There is scarcely a mention of cricket, which again is fair enough.

What is so sad is that Bumble's lyricism and love of his sport is being expended on such catchpenny trash – just a few days after the artist Sachin Tendulkar became the most prolific batsman in the highest form of cricket, the Test game that is hated by the man bankrolling the Caribbean circus.

Times change, we are told, and such as Lloyd are telling us we should now be agog for the cricket of the future. One word for this is salesmanship. Another is betrayal.