Bigmouth tweets again
Ever ready with a quote from Kant, Joey Barton’s Twitter account confounds those who expect working-class footballers to be thick.
‘Has [sports journalism] in this country stooped so low as to quote my nonsensical social media ramblings. They will probably quote this sh*t! How sad???’ Who said that? Here’s a clue: having effectively been booted out of his club Newcastle United for complaining about the board of directors on Twitter, he promptly tweeted, ‘In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act. George Orwell’.
That’s right, it was Joey Barton, a man who, up until he erupted into the Twittersphere late this spring, was famous for two things. Being a very good footballer. And being an excellent fighter. Especially when bladdered. And for too long, sadly, the tanked-up fighting looked to be coming at the expense of the football.
There’s no doubting Barton’s racked up an impressive rap sheet. While playing for Man City in 2004, he stubbed a cigar out in a then youth player’s eye. In the summer of 2005, he was sent home from a pre-season tour of Thailand after a fight with a 15-year-old Everton fan and then City captain Richard Dunne. In 2007 he beat up City teammate Ousmane Dabo, effectively sealing his exit from the club in the process. And then things really went pear-shaped. In December 2007, he had a drunken fight in Liverpool town centre which led to him being given a six-month jail sentence in May 2008. As Barton himself put it on Twitter, ‘I was a complete bellend at times. No doubt about it. No denial of that from me… but I’ve grown and changing considerably as a man.’
Since then, though, he’s largely kept himself out of trouble. And finally, his actual footballing ability is now being recognised, with talk of an England recall growing louder. The very fact that Fabio Capello even mentioned Barton, if only to dismiss the calls for Barton’s belated reinstatement, shows that he’s on the England manager’s mind.
But it’s not football or fighting that has thrust Barton into the public spotlight. It’s his Twitter account. Every prejudice, every preconception, every thug-shaped stereotype applied to Barton and, surreptitiously, to footballers in general, is chipped away with every surprising 140-character tweet. He loves fey-man’s favourite The Smiths, he recommends Foreign Policy magazine, he urges people to read Naomi Wolf’s The End of America, and he quotes. By God he quotes. Nietzsche, Aristotle, Oscar Wilde, Immanuel Kant, George Orwell and even David Brent (‘Eagles may soar high, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines’) – all of them get an outing. He’s not so keen on the current Labour Party leader, though: ‘I know it’s quite arrogant but I’ve just heard [Ed Miliband] speaking in commons and cannot abide his haircut or his lisp… Surely there’s somebody within the labour party that can speak properly and with authority? Obviously he shouldn’t be banished just not front man.’
And Barton has offered some pretty astute commentary on this week’s riots. He quickly dismissed the techno-determinist idea that the spate of rioting was caused by Twitter, Facebook and smart phones: ‘Social networking makes u go out and cause anarchy? Good one. Not having an authority figure in life causes this and no life prospects.’ Not that he had any sympathy for the entitled mob: ‘They all think they have a god given right to have certain things in life, only problem is they’re not prepared to work hard for anything.’
It’s been a bit of a shock to the system for those who like their footballers easily sneered at, for their bling and their Tudor. Barton just does not fit the tired caricature. At points, usually when flinging around criticism of American foreign policy and crass materialism, he’s more Guardianista than your average Brighton café. Which is probably why Barton has prompted so much backhanded snobbery. ‘How can he be like us?’, they wonder.
This manifests itself in the patronising tone of some of the articles about the new Twitterfied Joey Barton. A GQ columnist writes under the headline ‘Joey Barton’s surprisingly erudite Twitter‘: ‘Maybe it was when he quoted George Orwell, or maybe it was when he used “echelons” and “persona non grata” in the same 140 characters, but GQ.com has been surprised and not a little impressed by newfound free agent Joey Barton’s Twitter feed.’ The Guardian‘s arch celebrity column, ‘Lost in Showbiz’, expresses equal surprise at Barton’s familiarity with multi-syllable words and non-picture books. In fact, the columnist thinks it is downright hilarious. Imagine, esoteric, Marxisant philosophy plus footballer – it’s like putting a pet dog in a lounge suit. ‘Lost in Showbiz prefers to believe that it signals the dawn of a new age for football, in which bookish 80s indie, revolutionary socialism and philosophy play a much larger role, and looks forward to Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott hotly debating the merits of the Go Betweens’ “Man o’Sand to Girl o’Sea” and Adorno’s rejection of Kantian aesthetics in favour of a different kind of “truth-content” or wahrheitsgehalt in aesthetic theory, and fully hopes to see Ashley Cole selling Socialist Worker outside Fulham Broadway tube.’
If the Twitter account didn’t belong to a footballer, if he was, let’s say, an actor or a journalist, Barton’s facility with wit and quotes, albeit nabbed from some philosophy Twitter feed, would be utterly unremarked upon. After all, famous epigrams are their property, their social capital. They help to mark such people out from the unintellectual riff raff who can supposedly only talk in textspeak. But along comes this footballer, this supposed thug, this walking-talking embodiment of moneyed working-class vulgarity, and he seems perfectly comfortable circulating their intellectual currency. What’s going on? He’s a footballer. They just eat chicken and play Fifa on their X-boxes, don’t they? Barton is even self-deprecatingly aware of such dashed expectations: ‘Literally giving u some stereotypical footballer info here, am off to nando’s then cinema……..#notjoking.’
Not that Barton needs any support. He’s perfectly capable of handling himself. So when responding to some recent criticism which dredged up his past from ex-manager and current pundit David Pleat, a man who has been more than a little familiar with ladies of the night, Barton tweeted that people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones, before adding the tag ‘#3mph’. The Mirror’s Oliver Holt was not impressed: ‘[Pleat’s] criticisms were mild. He even called you “a decent club player”. So your kerb-crawling response did you no credit.’ To which Barton quite rightly responded: ‘kerb-crawling???? What u on about, I was just suggesting he drove quite slow… u’ve outed him, bad form Ollie #3mph.’ He then called Holt the ‘journalistic equivalent of holding a digestive biscuit in a cup of tea for a second too long’.
Having subsequently taken on the Daily Mail’s Des Kelly, mainly for his predilection for alice bands, and warned ex-Mirror editor and the latest phone-hacking associate Piers Morgan that they don’t have hair dye in prison, he addressed the nub of the issue: ‘Am sure they think all footballers are knobs, that are just gonna let public schoolboys abuse them, think again lads. We have a voice now!!!’
None of this should be a surprise. Barton’s never been afraid to speak his mind, or gob off. As he said to 442 magazine in 2008: ‘I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve dealt with them. I’ll tell you one thing I am proud of; when I’m finished I’ll be able to look back at my career and know that I was never this media-hyped ponce who was manufactured.’ Too right, Joey.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.