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Brighton and Hove Albion

Joey Barton, Bobby Zamora and the second tier comeback

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“Strange some people think I’ll be playing in the Championship next season. Good one!”, read a tweet from Joey Barton in May 2013, before he then went on to make 37 league and play-off appearances in the Championship for QPR. His incredulity was born of a supreme confidence in his own ability and an expectation he would depart newly relegated QPR and the Premier League suitors would be knocking down the door.

Barton was fresh from a semi-successful loan spell with Marseille, and it looked for all the world as though his time at QPR was coming to an end – indeed, it had looked like that for more than a year. As it turned out, when Harry Redknapp joined in November – with Barton already in France – it turned out he wasn’t done with him, and Barton played a central role in QPR’s bounce back to the top flight.

Considering the big role Barton played in a team he had spent several years on the periphery of, it’s interesting how much of a taboo still seems to exist around players dropping down a league. It allowed Barton a season in the sun that he wouldn’t have otherwise got, and one that came at the wrong side of thirty at that.

Barton was one of the better players in the division, his technique and physicality setting him apart from players used to the pace of the Championship. He is rarely more than a journeyman in the Premier League, occasionally a talismanic presence, but often more trouble than he’s worth as his frustration gets the better of him. Frustration less of an issue in the Championship with a bit more space, and being a bit more talented than some of his competitors.

This is presumably the thinking of Burnley, for whom Barton made his debut last week. If Barton can keep his temper under wraps, and settle into his new team, he could be a stabilising presence that helps give them an edge in the long grind of a second tier season. At thirty-three, Barton is not getting any younger, and should be beyond the temperament issues more typically associated with younger players – compared to his younger self he is certainly a changed man, but now is the time to prove his maturity.

If he doesn’t, at least there’ll probably be some entertaining Twitter exchanges with famous Burnley fan and fellow speaker-of-his-mind Alastair Campbell.

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A separate, and perhaps far more desirable, return also happened elsewhere in the Championship last week, with Bobby Zamora returning to Brighton, the club where he made his name. Zamora was given a heroes welcome when he signed for his former club on a free transfer at the end of August, returning to the starting line up for a trip to Bolton – an incredible 12 years after his last start for the club.

Young Zamora was the spark in a Brighton side that won successive promotions from Division Three and Division Two into what is now the Championship. Veteran Zamora will hope he can pop up with important goals, and be a positive influence in the dressing room. His team have started strongly and sit top of the league after nine games – but the Championship is a marathon, and the chasing pack is always lurking.

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There is a lack of willingness among senior players to step down the leagues in the twilight of their careers. Zamora is very much an outlier, as a player who probably had a year or two left of playing a bit-part role in a Premier League setup, but who chose to return to a former club. But then, having recently been in the Championship with QPR, he is no stranger to the league – for him the taboo is broken.

Once upon a time, top players and regular internationals would stay with their clubs regardless of their league or cup success – it was their local team, and that town or city was where their life was, where their family were. The slow fading of a bright light allowed others to learn and develop, and was an integral part of bringing young players into the first team.

Now, there are very few blurred lines between divisions, and players tend to be an appropriately-sized fish in an appropriately-sized pond. Career progression is linear and vertical, and descending the ladder is rare.

A lot of hot air is created talking about the development of the next generation of English players, perhaps we should start by encouraging more of the current generation to follow Zamora’s example and willingly make the step down, while there are still miles in their legs.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Jonathan Rolande.

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