Joey Barton, the Newcastle United midfielder, returns to his native Merseyside this weekend knowing he could be targeted on and off the pitch. The 28-year-old and his teammates will attempt to bounce back from their 2-0 home defeat by Blackpool when they visit Everton in what is likely to be an even tougher fixture.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, caused controversy last weekend when he omitted Wayne Rooney, his talismanic striker, from his squad ahead of the 3-3 draw at Everton. Ferguson said he wanted to protect the England forward from a hostile reception from supporters at Goodison Park, who have never forgiven Rooney for walking out on the club to join United, following lurid revelations in a British newspaper about his private life.
However, Huyton-born Barton has become used to hostile receptions and is expecting no different on Saturday, although he insists he does not have a problem with it. The former Manchester City player appeared to be marked out for special attention during last month's 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton Wanderers and discussed the matter with Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, as they left the pitch. Barton, who was sent off on his last trip to his home city at Liverpool two seasons ago, said: "I think a lot has been made of it.
"It's because everything that happens around me becomes a big deal. People think I have metamorphosed into a saint. "My disciplinary record isn't that bad on the pitch - I have only been sent off with straight reds twice. "I have had a few second yellows, but that comes with it when you are a midfielder - it is part of the territory. I told Mick McCarthy I thought they had targeted me and he told me I was no shrinking violet myself.
"That's part of the game and Mick is a good football man - it's by the by, it's gone." Barton recently spoke candidly about the off-the-field problems which have interrupted his career on Tyneside in a BBC interview, but is now concentrating on his football after returning to something like his best form. Competition for places in the Newcastle midfield has been increased by the transfer window arrivals of Hatem Ben Arfa, the Frenchman who made his debut as a substitute at the weekend, and Cheik Tiote, the Ivory Coast international.
Barton said: "We have competition for places and it's up to the lads who get the starts to hold on to that shirt, and that's the same for everybody here. We have got new players coming in and they are coming into a strong squad. "I am fully fit now and had the full pre-season under my belt. I have got the chance to prove it in a good team." * Press Association