Footballers, specifically English footballers, have long had to disguise any hint of an intellectual hinterland. During his playing career, middle-class Chelsea veteran Graeme Le Saux famously confessed to reading a certain left-leaning broadsheet. He was subjected to years of homophobic abuse from fans and fellow players.
Homophobic abuse is sickening; that Le Saux isn’t gay didn’t make it less so. (This is not an issue that afflicts continental players: Gennaro Gattuso reads Dostoevsky on the loo before matches; Philippe Senderos gladly admits an affection for the works of Paolo Coelho.)
Anti-intellectualism and homophobia are very different prejudices, but the case of Le Saux suggests a Venn diagram of bigotry would reveal a crossover between the two.
When Gareth Thomas, Wales’ mostcapped rugby player, came out as gay, he was celebrated in the world of sport and beyond. There was a sense that his stature as a player, not to mention his non-conformity to gay stereotypes, made him the ideal pioneer.
Which brings me to Joey Barton: budding philosopher and (at time of writing) Newcastle midfielder. Barton is the opposite of the intellectual stereotype. He’s from a tough, Liverpool background, has twice been convicted on violent charges, and is friends with Noel Gallagher. That, perversely, makes him one of very few footballers who could get away with tweeting quotes by George Orwell and Aristotle. And not just get away with it, be celebrated for it, like Thomas, by fans and non-fans alike.
Here’s hoping a few more English footballers follow him from the intellectual closet, perhaps by publishing their summer reading lists.