Steve McClaren’s spell as England manager was a low point for all concerned. McClaren, promoted from within the England staff, was well respected as a coach and would go on to win the Dutch Eredivisie title with FC Twente after leaving the national team post. Under his tutelage England failed to qualify for UEFA Euro 2008, an occurrence that has thankfully been quite rare in recent years. The mercifully brief McClaren era’s true nadir came at the end – Croatia, Scott Carson and an umbrella saw to that – but in February 2007 the calls for his head were already increasing in volume and frequency.
After England’s performance against Spain at Old Trafford in February’s friendly international, it’s not surprising. The 1-0 defeat was sealed with a brilliantly controlled shot in off the crossbar by Andres Iniesta, but it should have been far more emphatic a scoreline. Spain were wasteful in front of goal, Fernando Morientes the most culpable offender. But it was a game that continued the demise of McClaren and also provided Joey Barton with his 11-minute England career.
Barton, who tweeted this week about his hatred of the name “Joey” and shall therefore henceforth be known as “Joey”, is an enormously controversial character who won’t be forgotten in a hurry. He began his senior career at Manchester City and began to put in motion the fascinating dualism that came to define his career. While the City team wasn’t what it is now, Barton’s contribution to it was a worthy one. He had plenty of quality and endless energy, traits that explain the popularity of countless footballers.
But the other side of Barton was less savoury. A notoriously chippy player, run-ins with a City youth team player and Ousmane Dabo created headlines that superseded anything Barton was capable of on the field, and he was hardly a picture of innocence within the pitch either.
In the wake of England’s lacklustre World Cup 2006 campaign Barton robustly criticised the prevailing culture of greed in the Premier League. His specific targets were certain England players who had chosen to hastily release autobiographies. These were players that Barton has long believed are of lesser talent than himself, and in coming out to lambast them in public he established himself outside the England mainstream and arguably limited his international chances.
Nevertheless, Barton was called up for his one and only England appearance against a burgeoning Spain side and went on to secure a move to Newcastle United that summer, a transfer that should have been the making of a solid Premier League midfielder. Given his criticism of many of his team-mates, his replacement of Frank Lampard – who faced the forthright opinions of opposition fans when Chelsea played away in the season after the World Cup – carried some potency. 11 minutes later, Barton’s England career was over and he’d barely had a kick.
His initial goodwill with the Magpies was similarly short-lived. In May 2008 he was imprisoned for an assault in Liverpool while on bail the previous December, and served 77 days of his sentence behind bars. After that, a false dawn. Barton signed up for Sporting Chance, admitting to being an alcoholic and giving interviews about changing his ways. For a time, Barton largely let his football do the talking as he shone in an improving Newcastle side. In the season after they’d been promoted back to the Premier League, Barton put in some performances that backed up his claims of his own brilliance.
Since then, though the seriousness of his indiscretions have been nothing like the ones that took him to prison a few years ago, the latest fall from grace has been unedifying. His tweets are generally more pathetic than controversial, and the first major laundry aired in public was his unflattering departure from Newcastle, but not before one last ugly on-field incident in a match against Arsenal. Queens Park Rangers picked him up, and Neil Warnock made him captain. Save for the occasional flare-up and silly tweet, Barton avoided too many negative headlines until his remarkable strop in the last game of the 2011/12 Premier League season against Manchester City.
In recent years, I’ve tried on occasion to give Barton the benefit of the doubt. I’ve tweeted some right old nonsense myself, and much of Barton’s apparently chaotic personal life is most certainly not of his making and none of our business. It’s easy to have sympathy with that, and Barton’s take on modern football is often difficult to disagree with. Sometimes, he steps up and gives his opinion on issues of genuine importance, in some instances when the silence of his peers is genuinely disgraceful.
My patience, like many, has run out. But in January 2011, when Barton had argued that there weren’t two central midfielders in England better than him but he wouldn’t get another England chance, I wrote about it on a previous website. In his form at the time, he at least presented an intriguing case. But the trouble with Barton, in my view, was that even though he can be – and was at the time – very good, he would never be good enough for his ability to over-ride the things he does, or the things he’s done.
His international career has been doomed for years, and not by Barton the footballer. His club career is, sadly, going the same way. I hope that his next club can enjoy the best of him, and that he allows that side of himself to shine.