The well-known Liverpudlian philosopher and part time QPR midfielder Joey Barton has spent a career being the footballing equivalent of a toffee hammer. Marauding across the midfield, hitting things, breaking up play like it was the aforementioned confectionary. It’s a role he seems to relish, casting himself as an enforcer of the old school, a heroic figure and protector of his teammates.
He’ll spend the next three games protecting them from the stand, having picked up his ninth career red card in Sunday’s game at Hull. Barton involved himself in the aftermath of a tackle from QPR debutant Darnell Furlong. Furlong received a yellow card for the challenge, Barton received a red for a shove on Alex Bruce and a below the belt something-or-other on Tom Huddlestone.
With his team fighting relegation, already a goal down and with more than an hour to play, QPR could probably have done without losing their captain.
Barton’s response was typical of a self-styled renaissance man – a tweet quoting Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
Quite so. But Shaw is unlikely to have considered repetition the same mistakes as honourable or useful. On this we can reach for no less a cultural touchstone than Miley Cyrus: “I always say the minute I stop making mistakes is the minute I stop learning, and I’ve definitely learned a lot.” (We can all do quotes, Joey.)
But how much learning has Joey Barton done? Self-reflection is all well and good, but you need to alter your behaviour too, or else it’s just staring in a mirror. Sooner or later, if you keep making them, mistakes stop being mistakes and start becoming habits.
Barton’s career is littered with these flashpoints. Setting aside off the field incidents – of which there are several significant (and even criminal) examples involving fans, youth players and teammates – Barton’s behaviour has long been the subject of sleepless nights and pros and cons lists for managers. A player who at his best is a dynamic influence as a deep-lying centre midfielder, with an underappreciated range of passing, is tainted by the view that he is – as they say – a bit of a liability.
Sport is about control and precision and Barton’s role requires controlled aggression – he must be considered a threat by the opposition without genuinely being one. The physicality should be measured, calculated – it cannot be the result of a man who has lost control of his actions in the heat of the moment.
Barton has nine cards in 19 games this season, sitting joint second in the rankings alongside Garath Barry and Lee Cattermole, just one behind Jack Colback. Going into Sunday’s match with Hull, Barton had received yellows in seven consecutive games, a worrying trajectory that hit a wall with a red card that was his first in the Premier League since May 2012. On that occasion he received a 12 match ban for seemingly wanting to take on the entire Manchester City team by himself, tussling with Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Mario Balotelli on his way to an early bath for elbowing Carlos Tevez.
He was relieved of the Rangers captaincy as a result, and a period of rehabilitation in France with Marseilles followed. But he was back at Loftus Road the following season, restored to the captaincy by Harry Redknapp to help QPR – who had been relegated in his absence – gain promotion back into the Premiership.
And therein lies the conundrum. Joey Barton is unquestionably a powerful presence, but he is one that can be galvanising or divisive depending on the circumstances. His temperament may suit a promotion push far better than a fight against relegation – a rearguard action, grinding out results, requires a different kind of leader on the pitch; one that at the very least is present, and more importantly is a consistent and reliable performer.
QPR have 12 league games to go this season and sit 18th in the table, out of the relegation zone on goal difference alone. Without Barton for the next fortnight, they face three fellow London sides in Arsenal, Tottenham and a resurgent Crystal Palace, his return will coincide with a trip to Everton to round out the month. Rangers must be looking at that run and thinking that they could quite easily get to the end of March without adding a single point to the 22 they’ve cobbled together so far this campaign.
Then the pressure really will be on. Relegation battles need players who thrive under pressure. Is Barton that kind of player, or is he just ‘that kind of player’?