Joey Barton determined to remain calm in the chaos of management as he plots Fleetwood Town's rise

The outspoken 36-year-old cites Burnley boss Sean Dyche as ‘a bit of a mentor’ as he adopts a more philosophical approach to his first coaching job

Simon Hughes
Friday 07 September 2018 13:26
Comments
Joey Barton_ Fleetwood have taken a gamble on me

Next to Joey Barton on a table at Fleetwood Town’s Poolfoot Farm training ground are two enormous camera sets. Eddy Jennings, Barton’s friend-turned-club consultant, is waiting at the door to escort him into another room where he will be trailed by documentary makers shooting scenes between interviews, the next of which will be recorded by an altogether different film crew to whom Barton will speak about the most significant game in his management career so far.

The international break means Sunderland and Fleetwood are the two highest placed teams facing each other in the Football League this weekend, though the intrigue runs deeper than the respective trajectories of the parties involved.

It is, indeed, worth mentioning that while Sunderland finished bottom of the Premier League in 2003 – the year Barton made his professional debut for Manchester City – Fleetwood crept to tenth in the North West Counties and it did not seem unusual back then that the towns of Clitheroe, Congleton and St Helens were able to field sides that were better.

The finance and guidance of owner Andy Pilley would help secure five promotions in nine years, heaving Fleetwood into League One. Even though this is their fifth season at that level and it might seem normal for them to be there by now, their path to this point – as well as Sunderland’s fall – is illustrated when you discover that one club is still receiving top flight parachute payments and has a playing budget of £28 million while the other club – the one that went to Alsager and lost 4-0 only 15 years ago – is now operating on £3m.

Barton’s involvement makes Fleetwood more relevant than they otherwise would be. An average match had previously generated fewer than 100,000 page impressions on Fleetwood’s Twitter feed but when he was announced as their new manager in May, the two million barrier was smashed for the first time in the space of a few hours. It explains the decision to invite the cameras in, with Pilley recognising the potential for extra revenue through a fly-on-the-wall series with Barton as the central figure. Though contracts have not been signed yet, behind-the-scenes footage from Fleetwood’s victory over Bradford City last weekend will make interesting viewing should it appear on screen, for reasons that Barton would volunteer.

He begins by telling The Independent about how the thrill of victory and the despair of defeat changes when a player becomes a manager. He had lost the opening game of the season at home to Wimbledon before winning at Scunthorpe, 5-0. Bradford, though, would mean much more to him.

(Simon Hughes

“As a player, you have the physical attachment to the game in terms of the adrenalin, the bumps and the bruises. You get up the next day and you’re a little bit hollowed out in terms of the high of the game to the low of the aftermath, which includes the aches and other psychological factors including the detail of whether you’ve won or lost.

“You have some physical attachment to the game as a manager but it’s not the same because you’ve got to maintain a sense of balance. You’re still a leader and you’re still the captain of the ship. You’ve got to set the tone for the next week’s training and you’ve got to close the game down from the weekend before, building into the next fixture. In that respect management is a bit easier because you haven’t got the depletion of adrenalin stores and the physiological and psychological impact that 90 minutes has on your body and mind. You are able to think a lot more clearly and a lot more rationally because your body’s not aching. But then, you’ve got a lot more to think about than just getting yourself right…

“I drove home after the game on Saturday [against Bradford] feeling differently to all the other matches. To win with 10 men meant I felt as close to being a player again as I had at any point in the last six weeks. When you have one less player, you feel like you have to offer even more support from the touchline than usual. You become more emotionally invested because the lads are up against it.

“It’s different in the dressing room at half time because you know you’ve got so much time left to play and you’re doing it with the handicap of a red card. There’s a little bit of chaos in there because the players are trying to organise amongst themselves. As a staff, we’ve taken the policy to isolate ourselves for a couple of minutes and have a chat in the manager’s office. My team-talk on this occasion was aimed at just cooling the rest of the staff down. ‘Stop and start breathing.’ We literally stood in the manager’s office taking deep breaths. It wasn’t meditation. I’ve learned that if you remain calm in the chaos, you tend to make good decisions. If you get caught up in the chaos, you make emotional decisions. Certainly, when I played I got caught up in the chaos. Now I try and take a step back like a general on the battlefield. If a general gets caught on the front line then it’s difficult to make the best manoeuvres in the bigger picture. You have to detach yourself. It was important in that moment for the lads to see that the leadership remained composed, in control and knew what it was doing.”

Ashley Hunter’s goal three minutes after the break suggests whatever words Barton found were the right ones, because Fleetwood then also hung on, securing a result that would push them up to sixth in the table. What happened next to Michael Collins, an even younger manager than Barton – someone also in his first job – acted as a reminder of what can happen in League One if your team loses four out of six games. Within 48 hours, Collins had been sacked.

Read Barton’s autobiography and a subtle picture of loneliness develops. Conflict had often taken him to the edge, an edge that if not quite crossed manifested into some of his best achievements but if strayed beyond would contribute towards the situations that define his reputation.

“I survived in football,” he reflects now. “There are players coming to take your job every transfer window from all parts of the world, sometimes at ridiculous expense. Every day is a test. You’re trying to survive. It hardens you. Stuff that made you scared as a 17-year-old doesn’t make you scared as a 30-year-old. The psychological warfare of football at the top level encourages a resilience of character. I take that into this job. The best thing about this job is team building. You get to build a team of men and connect people together using all the experiences you have over the course of your career, good and bad, to try and make the group equally resilient, solid and want to play for each other. We talk about a team-over-self motto all the time.

(Getty

“One thing I really realised my earliest days as a player was, I was surviving on my own. I was so scared. By the end, I found myself in real teams knowing what would help the young version of me. The group I came through with was very individualistic. If I’d been in a team environment I would have got a lot more out of the experience. Why would I not want to create that for any of the youngsters that play for me? You can’t just buy players and expect to put a culture together. It might happen but I’ve seen it haphazardly happen in spite of the recruitment policy rather than because of it. You’ve got to work hard to create a culture instead and habitually – every minute – try to police the environment. Hopefully then you can let it grow and plug players into it. This summer I’ve spoken a lot about recruiting on attitude: sitting down and looking at players in the eye and making a decision on them based on what they are like as people. Obviously, they need enough talent to be in the ball park to play football. We’re not just going to recruit great lads, otherwise you’d just have a lot of your mates in here. But there’s some players we passed on because we didn’t feel they’d be the right people for our culture.”

Barton references Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager who signed him twice, as being “a bit of a mentor.” It is Steve Black he speaks about most endearingly, however; Black being the sports therapist he has since enlisted at Fleetwood having earlier helped him make sense of problems when it felt like his life was spiralling out of control. “Steve always tells me that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Barton says, and this ties in to what he is adamant will be the basis of his approach in man-management, a concept that when boiled down, he thinks “though I’m not the oracle about management after just a few games in charge,” is reduced to the simple act of caring.

“…Caring to find out why something is happening or not happening and listening. We use the same tools here as most other people would use with their friends and family. Football is life and life is football. You treat people the same way you would in football in the same way as you would in a friendship. As a manager, I want the players to know that the coaching staff care about them deeply. They’re not going to always agree with us and sometimes they might not accept the things you say but you’ve got to show you care. If you don’t and use a stick on them all of the time, I think that a point in time it will count against you. I don’t believe in using a stick because if you hit somebody with a stick you might need their help at some point and they’ll always remember the stick you used on them. Instead, I believe in dangling the carrot: always give them an incentive to do well by nudging them with positive realities. When I speak to the lads, I tell them that the great teams that I was a part of involved lads I know I could meet now and there still be a friendship. If we can make the bonds where players want to spend time together as people as well as players, we’ve got a better chance of winning football matches.”

One of those matches could be at Sunderland, a club that Barton had brandished in his Newcastle days as one he would never consider playing for. He is taking a more diplomatic view on their plight, admiring the way their supporters have helped the team to an unbeaten start, with more than 32,000 turning up at the Stadium of Light last weekend against Oxford United, an attendance that is more than Fleetwood’s population. He has been impressed by the impact of their new Scottish manager, Jack Ross, who might have the biggest budget in the league but is still dealing with problems created by his predecessors.

“He’s got players like Djilobodji and Ndong who haven’t even turned up at the club for pre-season, that can’t be easy to manage, especially when you’ve arrived from St Mirren which no disrespect to St Mirren but it doesn’t have the same weight of pressure that Sunderland has. Jack has started to turn around a team that is used to losing and they’ve had a fantastic start to the league campaign. We’ve got a test on our hands but we go there as equals. We’re now in the same league. We don’t care what Sunderland have done in the last 100 years.”

Barton’s unshakable self-belief would re-appear when asked about the wider possibilities at Fleetwood. While Pilley thinks a ceiling might be found in the Championship if Fleetwood were to ever get there, Barton assess the landscape a little differently.

“If you can buy the best players and employ the most expensive staff there’s an increased likelihood you’ll be successful but it’s not absolute. You look at Sunderland and the mismanagement despite the money over the last four or five years and it has led to them playing Fleetwood Town in a league game, so that’s the flip side. I’ve always believed that if you think you can or you think you can’t you’ll be proven right. If you’re honest and if you’re smart – if you’re consistent in your strategies and you don’t get caught up in the minutiae of one game’s result, you can achieve whatever you want. Burton have been to the Championship with a similar footprint to ours. Brentford are punching well above their weight too. You look at Bournemouth establishing themselves in the Premier League. There’s a few clubs knocking about that make you realise, if they can do it so can we.”

And with that, Barton was off to do the next interview – the cameras trailing him; the brightness from their lenses illuminating his every step.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in