The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Whenever I get to watch Newcastle United, my eyes aren’t on Andy Carroll, emerging young star that he is, but on Joey Barton—always on Joey Barton. What’s especially fascinating about Barton is the disjunct between his repeatedly bizarre, boorish, and criminal behavior and his typical on-pitch demeanor. In the recent draw with Sunderland, for instance, Barton was the still heart of his side for the whole match. He kept the team steady throughout: when his teammates struggled to keep possession, he would drop back, receive the ball, and distribute it smartly. He took all, or nearly all, the team’s free kicks during the game, and used them to put his teammates in good attacking positions. His defense was intelligently disruptive. Clearly his teammates looked to him to provide stability; he was supremely calm throughout, a Geordie Xavi. (It was particularly important for him to play that role with the propulsively dangerous Carroll on the bench with an injury.) Watching him play, not just in this match but in most matches, I find it almost impossible to believe that this is the guy who crashes his car into pedestrians, pummels teammates on the training field, curses his managers, makes two-footed lunges into opponents’ shins.
It’s useful in this context to compare Barton to another famously combustible player, Craig Bellamy. Bellamy would wear his temper on his sleeve except that he keeps his sleeves short to show off his tats. He flings himself madly but purposefully around the pitch for as long as his worn-out knees hold up; when he’s making one of his brilliant bandy-legged runs you think he’s going to launch himself into a defender rather than avoid him, and when he flies into a tackle you’re surprised whenever it’s not two-footed and studs-up. You could have no idea who Craig Bellamy is but watch him play for ten minutes and have his temperament fully pegged.
But if you had no idea who Joey Barton was and watched him play as he played on Sunday, as he plays most games, you’d probably assume that he’s a pillar of the community and the kind of guy his teammates seek out for wise counsel.
At the end of the Sunderland match, after Newcastle had led throughout only to give up a stoppage-time equalizing tap-in by Asamoah Gyan, the television camera found Barton. As players shook hands and exchanged shirts and walked off the pitch, Barton just squatted on his haunches, squinting into the distance, breathing heavily, not talking to anyone. His look was that of a man who had worked hard and didn’t have much to show for it—not as much as he had hoped for, anyway. Or maybe that was the look of someone trying very hard to master his emotions, and, as far as I could tell, succeeding.
Not his character, though: off the pitch Bellamy is a remarkable guy.
by Alan Jacobs · January 19, 2011