Interview: Joey Barton

Joey Barton’s reputation invariably precedes him, a reputation Barton himself summarised as a “violent Neanderthal thug who roamed city centres looking to beat people up” given his portrayal in the media. Barton was jailed for six months for common assault and affray in May 2008 as well as receiving a four-month suspended jail sentence for assaulting a Manchester City team-mate in May 2007.

However the Joey Barton I met was calm, collected, intelligent and extremely friendly. At points I could see elements of the illusory Joey Barton the media had created, yet overall my meeting with Barton was characterised by his insightful self-analysis and reflection.

Barton was born September 1982 in Huyton, Merseyside in an extremely deprived community. He referred to himself as a “working class boy from the streets of Liverpool”. Reflecting on his upbringing, however, Barton pointed out some of the advantages which might not otherwise have been apparent. “I look back now and actually think it [my background] was an advantage. It made me hungry, it made me determined to make something of myself, determined to be someone in the world and gave me that drive to succeed and be successful…I would consider it a great blessing”.

It was this sort of drive that led Barton to dismiss coaches who told him he was too small and he eventually earned a professional contract with Manchester City after his boyhood team – Everton – had released him. Barton would go on to play over 150 times for Manchester City before being bought by Newcastle for £5.8 million for whom he played 84 games. He moved to Queen’s Park Rangers in 2011 where he remains after a year on loan in Marseille. He also earned a single England cap in 2007 in a friendly against Spain.

The first contract that Barton signed when aged 19 saw him receive a salary of around £6,000 a week, not including bonuses for appearances and performance. This suddenly entered Barton into a different world from the one he had grown up in, a world full of its own challenges.

“It’s scary, you have nothing and then all of a sudden you have quite a bit. It’s difficult and no one is teaching you how to adjust to it… I struggled with it, I struggled with being famous, I struggled with having money and became a shadow of the person I am now…it eventually hit the wall and it accumulated in me going to jail. I didn’t realise until I went inside how fortunate I was and how negative a person upon society I had become. It’s not easy living your life in the public eye and there’s a side of me that envies people who don’t”.

The pressures of fame, money and professional football were clearly a difficult environment to grow up in and indeed this may have been exaggerated by Barton’s persistent belief that, “by the time I was nineteen I had achieved my goal [of becoming a professional footballer]”. Perhaps this confidence in his achievements prevented him from keeping grounded. But it’s difficult to pass judgment when his background is taken into consideration. According to Barton prospects were severely limited. “I probably had three career choices; sportsman of some sort, manual labour or drug dealer”.

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Joey Barton is well known for his use of social media. He has his own website where he writes pieces on all manner of subjects from football to social commentary and has nearly 2.5 million twitter followers (around four times the number that David Cameron has). The development of social media and in particular platforms such as twitter that allow celebrities and media personalities immediate contact with people is something that Barton feels is a significant development.

Illustration by Sage Goodwin

“They [the media] have to adapt accordingly because I have so many people who follow me [on twitter] who have a better opinion of me than what the media portrayed before. They now have to adjust accordingly because it’s now not a true reflection of society to say I’m just a bad boy Neanderthal. In the social media space, why I’ve been successful is because I’m honest, I’m me, I’m genuine and people have seen that. People have seen a side of my character that they’ve never seen because the media controlled information before whereas now information is everywhere; people consume a lot of their news and a lot of their information from the internet or from social media and don’t do it from newspapers.”

Barton makes a thought-provoking point about the use of platforms such as twitter to “negate the media”, in his own words. Although Barton did jokingly acknowledge that initially he thought that giving him twitter was like “giving an arsonist a box of matches”.

Social media helps create accountability for the mainstream media because of the instant connection that people have with other sources of information. This of course was not the case prior to the advent of the internet and is even more so since the dawn of the ‘twitter age’.

Indeed Barton emphasised the positive role that social media can play and cited his use of his twitter presence in helping the campaign for justice for the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster gain the 100,000 signatures for the issue to be heard in the Houses of Parliament. When the victim’s names were read out in the Houses of Parliament Barton said “along with the birth of my child it is the proudest moment of my life”.

Barton has also been outspoken about the issue of homophobia in football partially because of a personal connection – Barton had a gay uncle who he grew up “idolising and adoring”. On the issue of homophobia in football Barton spoke about the issues that still remain. “In the dressing room I don’t think it [homophobia] would be a problem, most of the lads who play football are quite liberal – it wouldn’t even be an issue. I think that the greatest fear [for gay footballers] would be what goes on inside football stadiums because we all know football fans can be quite cruel…something has to give, it will be the same way as racism within the stadium – it will be other fans policing other fans. In an ideal world we’d answer all of those questions [on homophobia in football] positively but I’m also a realist and know that there’s still a bit of work to be done. I don’t think it’s the work of gay people to do; I think it’s the work of everyone to do, society to do. Our sport, as the biggest sport in the UK, should be the most progressive.”

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Barton’s progressive (and particularly outspoken) attitude on homophobia in football is refreshing if only because so few other players are willing to talk about the subject. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 eight years after becoming the first (and to this day only) professional footballer in England to come out as gay. When his niece, Amal Fashanu made a documentary for the BBC on homophobia in football in 2012 Barton was the only footballer who agreed to be interviewed. 

Joey is certainly someone who is looking to further himself. He has enrolled in a philosophy degree at Roehampton University; he undoubtedly seems to be taking it seriously because one of the two people accompanying him was one of his lecturers in philosophy from Roehampton. Indeed Barton remarked “I love causing chaos, not physical anymore, but intellectual.” He was philosophical at times and he related his chosen academic discipline to his own life, telling me “We’re doing Plato’s Republic now and really studying it in detail. A just man appearing unjust or an unjust man appearing just – what is it better to be?” This statement is particularly apt for Barton’s use of twitter to overturn the image created of him by the mainstream media.

Barton described himself as “a good man who made bad decisions” and after meeting him I would say that this rings true. Barton has done some terrible things in the past, but many would argue that they are not unforgiveable. Barton himself summed it up when he told me that, “I would dare any of us to judge anyone until we’re faced with their same situation.”