Roll up, Roll up! The Circus is in Toon

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August 14, 2011

At least that’s what weary Newcastle fans must have been feeling as their opening day Premiership encounter with Arsenal at St.James’s Park was once more overshadowed by the antics of their midfield ringmaster, Joey Barton.

For those of you who missed their ringside seats, it all started with an innocuous foul committed by Barton on midfielder Alex Song. In a cynical retaliation, the flaxen-haired Cameroonian stared coolly into the distance while planting his studs in the back of Barton’s exposed calf. Barton – understandably – went ballistic at the fourth official; Song will surely hear from the FA early next week.

But this wasn’t enough for tweet-a-holic Joey who, like a juvenile looter, is always quick to cry ‘victim’ and use this as justification for his future conduct. If Joey does deserve some sympathy, and those who are too quick to forgive would do well to remind themselves of the brutal details of his violent past, it is that in the micro-society of Premiership football he often does suffer at the hands of other clubs. He is an easy target; when Barton staggered off the field after being relentlessly bullied by Wolves last year, Mick McCarthy quickly pointed out that Joey was no ‘shrinking violet’. The truth is: pick on Barton and you stand a good chance that your opponents will be a man down by the end of ninety minutes. This Achilles Heel can be too tempting to resist for some clubs.

Fortunately for the former international midfielder, recently branded a liability by Capello, referee Peter Walton did not succumb to the prejudice that could easily have led to an opening day dismissal for Barton. Instead, it was Arsenal’s debutante striker Yao Gervinho who was rightly ordered off. After the Ivorian was upended, Barton falsely accused him of diving and grabbed him roughly by the collar, hauling him to his feet. Adeptly skirting around the laws of the game, the wily midfielder escaped with a caution, but Gervinho was not so cunning. Throwing a loose arm in the direction of Joey’s head was enough to send the Toon troublemaker tumbling to the ground claiming a punch (he has since admitted going down easily).

What about the football? A nil-nil draw was the result, with Arsenal pretty at times but also pretty ineffectual, clearly reeling from the news of the imminent departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to Barca and City respectively. Newcastle were solid but uninspiring, handling the hard-working van Persie admirably but creating little to trouble Szczesny in the Gunners’ goal.

But the fact that football so often becomes the sideshow where Joey Barton is involved is the ultimate price that Newcastle are paying for failing to rid themselves of their poisonous midfield maestro over the summer. With contract talks breaking down and Barton placed on a free transfer, his agent relishing the job of relocating him to one of a host of interested clubs, it seemed that his Magpies career was finally coming to an end. But, for whatever reason, things changed. Perhaps the rumours of approaches by Tottenham and Arsenal were a fiction or perhaps, as the official story goes, he impressed Pardew with his commitment. Either way, Barton was eventually allowed to return to training with the first team and to take his place among the starting eleven.

Watching the post-match interview on Match of the Day was enlightening, highlighting how, in the case of Barton, both prosecution and defense distort reality to fit preconceived expectations. When Alan Pardew was asked whether the game could have lost three players (Song, Gervinho and Barton), the Magpies manager snapped, ‘why Barton?’ The interviewer’s assertion that Joey had grabbed Gervinho by the throat was an over-exaggeration but Pardew’s support for Barton’s reaction to Gervinho’s alleged dive was equally wrong-sighted.

Only Alan Shearer, a man from the old school, who values the black-and-white shirt above individual talent, had the nerve to try and pull the weed up at the root. In his brief stint at the helm of Newcastle United, he put his faith in Barton during the run-in of their doomed relegation battle. He was rewarded with yet another reckless challenge – yet another red card. Promptly telling Barton he would never play for the Toon again, it was clear that the former England, Newcastle and Blackburn striker meant it. But when Shearer realised that Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s beer-swilling chairman, was not willing to invest in success it was the Geordie who cut his ties. Newcastle’s big chance had gone and the weed was allowed to flourish, basking in the nourishing environment provided by a desperate Chris Hughton, eager to bring the Toon back to the Premiership at any cost.

But Pardew is an experienced manager and his private position may be at odds with his public display of support. Can Newcastle risk a Leeds-like demise, where David O’Leary’s lack of a firm hand was at least partly responsible for allowing the unruly behaviour of Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer to drag a great club into the gutter? How can a serious football club contemplate success when all it takes is a stamp or a slap to turn the football arena into a comedy show?

Joey Barton tweeted that he was off to watch Match of the Day, what ‘Saturday’s are all about’. That speaks volumes about a player so wrapped up in his own self-righteous narcissism that he is unable to see that he should be hanging his head in shame for once again allowing his temperament to contribute to bringing his club and the game into disrepute.

Newcastle United have a decision to make: do they cut their losses and offload their undoubtedly talented hot-head – or do they risk turning an illustrious club into Joey Barton’s Cartoon army?

Barton image licensed under CC generic 2.0. Author: Professor Toon