Butt: I've a lot of mates who have been in prison. It could have been me...

Nicky Butt opens his heart on Joey Barton, Fergie's tough love and the possibility of Newcastle finishing fifth. By Michael Walker
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The Independent Football

Nicky Butt used the phrase "working class" the other day. Some people still do. He also talked about a preference for old-fashioned football grounds and mentioned a kebab shop in the middle of Newcastle. It's called Munchies. Asked about fame, he spoke of his desire for "normality". There is something very likeable about Nicky Butt.

He spoke after getting his hands dirty potting plants with some young ex-offenders at a care home for the elderly in the hardened Byker area of Newcastle. After gardening in the rain with teenagers, Butt, along with Michael Owen, then helped blowout the candles of 94-year-old Hilda Trueman's birthday cake.

It was a Prince's Trust initiative in collaboration with Newcastle Unitedand the Premier League. Players, as Butt hinted, think this sort of thing a chore, yet he added immediately: "When you get here and see the cause, perhaps you should do more." Butt and Owen seemed at ease in the company, but then why not? The vast majority of footballers come from the section of society Butt referred to and, as he said, growing up in the Gorton area of Manchester meant contact with the sort of lads in black tracksuits tucked into black socks inside their black trainers now asking him questions about his golden career.

"I've got a lot of friends who've done well for themselves and a lot who've struggled through life as well," Butt said. "I can understand, people fall into the wrong hands. I've got a lot of close mates who have been in and out of prison and it probably could have been me if it wasn't for football. I also had good parents and people I looked up to, who kept me on the straight and narrow. I've still got friends who've done wrong, I'm sure everybody has.

"You've just got to be wise enough, and have enough people backing you up, to keep you on the right path. Luckily for me, I was at a club [Manchester United] where any messing about at a young age and you would not be going back."

Alex Ferguson's tough love had a major impact on Butt, who made his debut at Old Trafford aged 17. Now 33, Butt has seen enough to talk with common sense about an issue that some might have shirked. Given the situation, the conversation moved on to Joey Barton.

It has been another headline week for Barton, and when he goes on to the pitch at Fulham today, it may continue.For the first time post-prison, Barton is to start a Newcastle away game.

"Joey's gone through a bad spell in his life and he knows that," Butt said. "Hopefully he can put it all behind him now. He's someone who these lads can look at and see that everyone makes mistakes. And when you get given a second, third or – some people get more chances than others – you've got to take it with both hands.

"Joey's done wrong, he knows that, but he's done the crime, he's done the time." Butt added that Barton has been welcomed back "into the group" by Newcastle's players. Butt then said: "He's not let any of us down yet." The use of "yet" was matter-of-fact rather than a warning.

Interesting all the same. Butt's tolerance has limits. This should be unsurprising after the past few erraticmonths at St James' Park. Back-to-back home wins over West Bromwich and Aston Villa lifted Newcastle to 14th place on Monday, three points off Everton in seventh. There is relief on Tyneside at that, fresh belief from Butt that "fifth" is achievable, yet to Newcastle players the chaos has served to highlight wasted opportunity.

When 2008 dawned, Sam Allardyce was the manager. In its 11th hour, Kevin Keegan has come and gone and Joe Kinnear stands as Butt's sixth Newcastle manager since he moved from Old Trafford four years ago. ManagerNo 7 may be along soon.

"It's a frustrating club to play for," Butt said. "At the end of last season and the start of this we were thinking, 'Wow, we've got a great manager here in Keegan, who everybody loves – players and fans – and we brought some good players in."

In the season's opening two games, Butt adds, Newcastle "drew at [Manchester] United and we beat Bolton, and you thought, 'Buy one or twomore decent players now and we'll definitely be up there.' But then, all of a sudden, bang, Kevin goes, and we get knocked straight back down."

Nevertheless, he wants to stay. Butt is one of seven players whose contracts are up next June. Yet with the club up for sale there is no one to discuss that with.

"It's frustrating for players, and more so for fans. But it's a club that has moved close to my heart, I do feel a Newcastle man. I want to help it be what it should be."

Today's matches

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough (3pm)

Long Uefa Cup trips on a Thursday night have so far not unsettled Martin O'Neill's team, but Gareth Southgate's return to Villa Park with Middlesbrough could prove more awkward than expected. A dull draw?

Blackburn v Chelsea (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)

Normally capable of making life difficult for southern softies, Blackburn should expect to find their visitors in resolute mood after the unexpected capitulation in Rome on Wednesday. Interesting to see who Luiz Felipe Scolari leaves out.

Fulham v Newcastle (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

If it's tough at the top, it's so tight at the bottom that a handkerchief could be thrown over the lower half of the table. Neither of these teams can win away, which explains why they are down there.

Manchester City v Tottenham (3pm)

As Mark Hughes has admitted, City tend to leave the back door open, and the unfairly maligned Darren Bent has become adept at sneaking through it now that his confidence has improved. Check out the odds on another 4-4 draw.

Steve Tongue