English football at this festive time of year is, weather permitting, particularly hectic. Crucial games being played with only the time it takes to digest a turkey dinner between them. A brief respite for some players is the Christmas party – a time to let off a little steam before the exacting fixture list really kicks in. Some clubs have cancelled the party this year due to dismal results. One club with no reason to do this however is Newcasle United.
Performing relatively well in the league – with fantastic wins over Arsenal, local rivals Sunderland and, most recently, a 3-1 win over Liverpool. Their good run this season is due in no small part to Joseph Anthony Barton. His response to the controversial sacking of Chris Hughton has been mature off the field, and inspired upon it (putting in a man of the match perfomance against the Reds). It may be premature and even abhorrent to some but I think the title of the piece may not need its quizical question mark, provided Barton can stay injury and incident free; something which on past form may be hard to do.
Does Barton derserve a second go at international level? I would say at the current time, yes, but it is by no means a straightforward call. Barton notoriously let off a little too much steam at gatherings past. As a Manchester City player at their 2004 Christmas party he used youth team player Jamie Tandy’s eye as an ashtray, putting a cigar out on it. Although it transpired Barton was probably provoked due to Tandy trying to set the former’s shirt alite, this extreme behaviour was not an isolated incident. Barton has managed to put together a larger “rap sheet” than some characters in The Sopranos. Attacking team mates and the general public culminated in him doing prison time of 77 days.
Along with the numerous indiscretions, he has had many injury problems including a couple of the obligatory modern footballer’s injury of choice, the metatarsal break. But, accompanying all the bad behaviour, “cheeking” opposition fans, and the afflictions was a prodigious talent that led to an England cap in 2007 in a friendly against Spain. I think this season he has been getting back to his footballing best. Yet even with things mostly going well on the field, his self-destructive tendencies seem still to be there, lurking around the corner. Barton kept his cool against a Wolves side desperate to rile him, kicking the Newcastle man all over the park (and body). Maybe he’d turned a corner realising that lashing out ultimately only costs himself and his team mates? It doesn’t appear yet to be the case.
Take his re-enactement of Bruce Lee’s one-inch-punch on Morten Gamst Pedersen in November. His temper and his past may for some be enough to rule him out of ever getting near the three lions set up again. Too much of a gamble. Not a good role model. These are all valid arguments to his exclusion from the national side but I think the England Team’s current circumstances and the fact that his form is genuinely impressive means that Barton is worth another go at the highest level.
A breakdown in his relationship with Stuart Pearce at City, when “Psycho” insists you attend an anger management course you know you’ve got problems, and Capello’s wish that his players not be subjects of controversy may mean Barton might have to wait for a change in regimes before he gets another call-up, but I’d give him a chance provided he can continue to display the form he’s shown this season. Perhaps you don’t think he is good enough for England regardless of his off-field rashness? His on-field disciplinary record isn’t so bad that it should rule him out despite some high profile red cards.
He was sent off towards the end of the 08/09 season, missing the last three games of Newcastle’s run-in and the crucial stage of their fight for Premier League survival. Whether he can keep his cool at high pressure moments is for me the biggest risk in playing the troubled midfielder. This aggression, if channelled correctly, is also one of his assets. Assets which currently seem lacking in the usual England first XI. His stamina and mobility, along with his willingness to get stuck in mean he could make an ideal holding player; an especially important position now that it looks unlikely Owen Hargreaves will ever be able to fill that role again. England’s recent lacklustre performances could surely have benefitted from Barton’s all-action style. There’s more to his game than just hareing around – he uses the ball intelligently, can pass short and long, and he can chip in with the odd goal (or wonder goal provided he sports a lucky moustache).
If Andy Carroll is to be an England regular, a bonus for Barton is that he clearly has a good understanding with the hirsute Geordie. The lack of natural English holding players coupled with the ageing incumbents in the central midfield area means that the 28 year-old should be considered. Gareth Barry is far from comfortable as a holding player and his lack of athleticism lets him down, Henderson is an option but does not yet have the all-round game of Barton, Rodwell may in the future play a more advanced, therefore different, role, whilst Carrick is out of form and a does not have the “bite” of Barton. Huddlestone perhaps lacks Barton’s mobility, whilst Milner is sometimes wasted and ineffective in the middle of the park. All this assumes that Gerrard and Lampard are likely to play if fit. Otherwise I can see Wilshere playing and he’ll need some steel behind him so he can play with the necessary freedom. Admittedly Barton hasn’t always played centrally this season but the point is: he can. Plus, it just shows his versatility which is always a useful trait at international level.
The last time he got his chance he had not long criticised the England players’ performances during the 2006 World Cup. Has anything changed since then? Maybe his honesty and vigour could inject some life into the national team. Provided he keeps playing as he is, keeps media contact to a minimum, uses his sparring sparingly and England qualify, then Barton could, I think, be at the European Championships in 2012. Who needs squad harmony and role models if you’re winning. Cover your eyes kids!
AUTHOR: BEN STEVENTON