Our Editor at Large sticks up for Joey Barton, and sticks it to the hypocrites happy to hand over football to booze and betting firms
First, a declaration of interest, that might upset the more sensitive among you … Joey Barton is a pal of mine. When I was drawing mild abuse for defending him on Wednesday, when his career was effectively ended by an 18-month FA ban for betting, the assumption seemed to be that my support stemmed from the fact he plays for my team, Burnley.
But I have known Joey for a lot longer than the two seasons he has played for us. I have tried to help him navigate some of the scrapes he gets himself into from time to time. I have campaigned with him on addiction and other mental health issues. I have argued with him about politics – we agree on a fair bit, but he does seem to think my experience is of less value to an argument than his strong and robustly expressed ‘it’s common sense, Al’ opinions. To be fair, Question Time is no walk in the park for experienced politicians, let alone footballers, but he did it.
He is more interesting than most footballers, more intelligent, certainly more controversial, which partly explains why he is one of those players known to non followers of the game – of which there are millions, though you wouldn’t think it from the sport’s dominance of the media – as well as to football obsessives like me.
As with most professional sportsmen, he has an ego, a healthy regard for his own abilities, and for his knowledge of the game. But I like him also because he is a people person. I think one of the reasons he settled so well at Burnley – he was voted Player of the Year last year when we were promoted to the Premier League – was that he felt a real empathy with fans from a town that has had more than its fair share of economic and social challenges; and he does more than his fair share of the community work that too many modern players see as a chore rather than part of the job.
When he was in France, I mentioned to him that two of my French friends, Zizi and Jules, a barman and an olive oil maker, were massive fans of Marseille, where he was then playing. Joey asked me to invite them to the next game. We had great seats. He invited us for dinner with the squad afterwards. He then took these two gobsmacked working-class football nuts on a tour of the stadium, the dressing rooms, the lot. Zizi’s exclamation ‘I can’t believe I just pissed where Didier Drogba used to piss’ remains one of my favourite encapsulations of the madness that football fandom can infect in people. At midnight, when everyone else was gone, we were out on the pitch and Joey was taking penalties at them.
OK, OK, I am not saying he is a saint because he was really nice to a couple of my mates. But I am saying that those who see only the ‘toerag … scumbag … waste of space’ views that pour onto social media whenever Joey is in the news know only part of the story. I don’t defend his violence. I certainly don’t defend the things that he did that landed him in jail. And I don’t defend any player breaking FA rules on gambling. But I do say that the panel which delivered an 18 month ban did so because they felt they had to be seen to deal with Joey Barton the phenomenon, the caricature, not deal with the facts as they were presented.
Special talent needs special management and Joey was lucky to have had Sean Dyche as his manager at Burnley, because he seems to have got the best out of him in the latter stages of his career. Match after match, I have seen the players and fans of other teams try to goad him, provoke him, get him to do some of the crazy stuff we think we know him for. Time and again, he has risen above it. He has shown that it is possible for people to change. The FA hearing has judged the Joey Barton of old they think they know, not the Joey Barton of today whose career they have just ended.
He did something he should not have done. Fact. He did it a lot. Fact. He bet against his own team on a number of occasions. Fact. But he did not, contrary to the sense in some quarters, do so in games which he could influence. And players who have bet on matches in which they were involved have in the past got off a lot more lightly than Joey did.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, violent conduct – players guilty of some excessive offences in relation to all of these got hit with a lot less than 18 months. Luis Suarez, racist abuse of another player, eight match ban and a £40,000 fine. Suarez again, biting a player, ten match ban. Chris Stokes, of Coventry City, homophobia, calling Chelsea and Spurs players ‘faggots’ on social media, one match ban and a £1,000 fine. John Terry, racism, calling a fellow player ‘a black c—‘ , four match ban and £220,000 fine. Jonjo Shelvey, racism, allegedly calling a Wolves player ‘a dirty Arab c—‘ – five match ban, £100,000 fine. Ben Thatcher, for one of the worst tackles in Premier League history, eight match ban. Saido Berahino, tested positive for recreational drugs, eight week suspension. Jermain Defoe, biting another player – yellow card!
But there is also a massive hypocrisy in the FA efforts to stand atop the moral high ground on this. Barton is an addict. He has had alcohol addiction issues. He has gambling addiction issues. And football at the elite level is to a large part motored by these twin forces of modern life, booze and betting. Every time Joey pulls on a Burnley shirt – though thanks to the FA he won’t do so again – he advertises a gambling company because, like many other clubs, that is who we have as shirt sponsor.
Whenever you and I are watching a match on TV, we are bombarded by booze and gambling messaging. Sky Sports not only cover the game, not only provide the vehicle for the tsunami of pre-match, mid-match, after match and pitchside gambling advertising, but have their own Skybet arm to generate more money-making on the back of the mega money-making that the Premier League represents.
It is right to have rules on gambling. Wrong for Joey Barton or anyone else to break them. But there is a very mixed message in here. Booze and gambling firms drown us in their marketing and advertising because they want us to consume more and more of their products.
Footballers don’t drink as much as they used to, and in the modern game any who did would not survive as long as they used to. But gambling is easy. Any bet you care to think of, there at your fingertips. For sums of money that for the modern day footballer are often peanuts. If you have addictive instincts, it won’t be long before you are betting too much, and betting inappropriately. It is the nature of the beast.
Now that the FA has shown it is ‘tough on gambling’, let’s see whether they are tough enough to address these broader cultural issues, and the role the game’s biggest sponsors have in fuelling addiction, an illness they seem not to see as such, judging by the judgement they delivered on one of football’s best known bad boy addicts, whose previous reputation made him an easy target for a ludicrously disproportionate punishment.