Across the hills, valleys, parks and council estates of Britain, the domestic football season once again made its first noisy announcement of the season. First days of the season are normally accompanied by healthy, glowing summery tans, supporters with cheery expectations and managers from every corner of the universe.
On day one of the season Newcastle met Arsenal at St James’s Park in the opening hostilities of the 2011-12 Premiership season. The pitch was in billiard table condition, the players were posing and preening in their prettily pristiine shirts. Everything reminded you of the first day of the new school term gleaming black and white striped Newcastle clashing head on with the pillar box red of Arsenal.
But half way through the game one of the first year bullies started one of the most unnecessary punch ups in recent Premier League history. His name was all too familiar to the headmaster and looked for all the world as if the punishment was inevitable. Would it be the slipper or a hearty swish of the cane.
Joey Barton’s criminal record is so well documented now that you suspect that every referee must know exactly what to expect.Barton’s list of naughty, nasty misdemeanours roughly stretch the length of the Tyne. The various charges range from cigar burn assaults in sleazy nightclubs, general loutishness and thuggery as well as spiteful spats.
Now we all know that Barton comes with previous footballing black marks. He remains one of the most childish, repulsive, foul mouthed and aggressive footballers of recent times. His behaviour against Arsenal was so bizarrely ridiculous that you wondered if perhaps he’d got out of the bed on the wrong side.
After petty accusations for diving inside the Arsenal penalty area had died down, Barton quite literally took the law into his hands. He jumped almost melodramatically into a rugby scrum of players and flung his fists at any Arsenal he could lay his hands on. It was rather like one of those playground scuffles where the little kid in the glasses is just trampled on. To say it verged on the comical would be an understatement.
At the end of the mini heavyweight boxing contest Arsenal’s new forward Gervinho was shown the red card and the marching orders for an early bath. Barton just stood gesturing his innocence and insisting that he was only trying to make the referee see common sense. The jury was out on this case but most of us believed that Barton’s conduct was unforgivable and utterly deplorable. One of these days Barton will just grow up and reach full matuirty. Meanwhile he must stay behind and write his apologies now;.
Of course football’s hard men have always left their lasting studs behind them, a legacy of those bad old days drung the 1960s and 70s when football was a man’s game and defenders left their helpless victims in Accident and Emergency. These were the days when footballers ate nails for breakfast, ran relentlessly around the pitch during the summer and just kicked a football when the mood took them.
In those far off distant days defenders had steel in their boots and the physical challenges were such that players would roll around on the ground after the heaviest of tackles. During those blood and thunder, brutal and bloodthirsty times the players warmed the hearts of their adoring fans. It was almost as if they were under express orders to commit grievous bodily harm and if they refused to carry out those orders then ridicule was never far away.
The names of these offenders used to trip off the tongue like matinee idols. There was Norman Hunter of Leeds United, an allegedly savage beast of a defender who would crunch into tackles, tear large chunks out wingers shins and just casually walk away. Hunter was hard, vicious, ruthless when it mattered but so some believed good to his mother.
Hunter was just a brutish, cold hearted and almost murderous in the tackle. For ever more Hunter was the poor clumsy idiot who stumbled on the half way line in England’s World Cup qualifier with Poland in 1973. Seconds later Sir Alf Ramsey’s leg weary warriors were a goal down and although Allan Clarke levelled the game with a penalty, Hunter trooped off the Wembley’pitch inconsolable and sadly remorseful
Among football’s other snarling hatchet men were Billy Bremner, Leeds ginger haired firebrand who would growl, sneer and kick substantial lumps out of anybody in his way. Bremner of course would spend entire matches heckling referees and officials with venomous abuse. He would stomp about the pitch in a permanent strop, eyeball players as if they were military dictators and then threaten the ball boys.
Last but not least there was Nobby Stiles, the buck toothed 1966 World Cup hero who jigged ecstatically around Wembley on that unforgettable July afternoon. Stiles just loved the rough and tumble of it all. a good old fashioned hard tackling tripping, formidably feisty defender. Stiles was Manchester United through and through, never by his own admission the most educated of footballing brains but a player who treated every game as if it were a battle rather than a football match.
So Joey Barton’s football’s most unlikely of philosophers joins a celebrated gang of thuggish convicts who relish a scrap behind the bike sheds. Barton would never profess to be an angel but there are those in football over the weekend who believe quite categorically that regardless of the provocation, that Barton was simply doing what came naturally. Now finish off your detention Joey.