Simon Kelner: Life, like football, can be a game of two halves

Kelner's view
  • @Simon_Kelner

Today's column is tackling some very big themes: rehabilitation, redemption, respect and Queen's Park Rangers. My mind turned to these issues when I saw the footballer Joey Barton on Newsnight.

An appearance on BBC2's flagship news programme may be regarded as a sign of intellectual respectability, although the appearance of Nancy Dell'olio discussing feminism slightly kiboshed that. ("I'm sorry, I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about," was Jeremy Paxman's response to her).

Paxman's introduction of Barton, the QPR captain, to give his assessment of the new England manager, was similarly priceless. He said he had "a couple of convictions for violence and once played for England".

This might have startled some of Newsnight's regular audience, who are more used to guests being introduced as Nobel Laureates or professors of Economics, but Barton has indeed spent time at Her Majesty's Pleasure for common assault and affray. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment in 2008, and anyone who saw the CCTV footage of the incident at the time will wonder how, only a few years later, he could be sitting there, chewing over the issues of the day with Paxo.

And this offence was not entirely out of character for Barton. Both on and off the field, he was regularly in trouble. He put a team-mate in hospital after attacking him on the training ground, he stubbed out a lighted cigar in a young player's eye, and has kept referees busy throughout his career. Stuart Pearce, who managed him at Manchester City, said that Barton crossed the line from mischief to nastiness, and the player himself admitted that he couldn't argue with being labelled a thug.

Barton's charge sheet, which includes court appearances, playing suspensions and public fall-outs, does not make pretty reading, and you would be excused to think that he is beyond redemption. But to hear him on Newsnight, talking calmly, intelligently and using words like "predominantly", "entity" and "bureaucrat" and, in relation to the England team, saying that "inter-club rivalries have grown beyond the national identity", was a rather inspiring experience.

You don't have to be a Christian to rejoice in the one sinner who repents. If you don't believe people can have the opportunity to change, you might as well give up on humanity. Barton is one of the successes of the Sporting Chance clinic, a specialist addiction clinic for sportsmen, and his rehabilitation has been accelerated by his Twitter persona.

He's a prodigious tweeter, and has been known to stray into Cantona-esque linguistic contortions, quoting the literary strikeforce of Nietzsche and Orwell. He has almost 1.4m followers, a statistic that Paxman included, along with his convictions and his England caps.

Barton has been described as a "football philosopher" (a contradiction in terms, maybe) and his views, un-mediated and unreconstructed, demand attention. More than that, Barton challenges our ability and preparedness to accept that someone with his appalling record can become a decent and respected member of society. Appearing on Newsnight is not a bad staging post on that road.