It was the summer of 2005 and I had just joined Manchester City. We had gone on a pre-season tour to Bangkok, where there was a problem with two of my teammates: Joey Barton and Richard Dunne. They had been fighting and Barton was sent home. There had also been word of a racist comment from Barton to Marcus Bent.
Mentally, I prepared for an argument with Barton, my new teammate. There was no way I would turn a blind eye to the nonsense he was accused of. I asked my black teammate Trevor Sinclair about Barton. He replied that he was a good lad and no racist.
Then I settled into a dressing room with Barton. I like him. A lot. He was bright young man who made me laugh every day. He was wild, an absolute balloon who kept us all smiling. He was a kid, yet he used to hammer our manager Stuart Pearce for his clothes and how he wore his hair. He would call Pearce “Basin head” and ask if there was any chance he could pull his trousers higher. Barton was so sharp that Pearce had to take it – and he did.
Barton argued and argued with fellow Scouser Robbie Fowler and I would sit in between them and laugh out loud. The arguments were centred on which part of Liverpool was better, Barton’s bit or Fowler’s bit. They never did agree.
Barton may have been young, but his mentality was: “I’m as good as anyone here and I’ll speak my mind. If anyone disagrees then say it to my face.”
He called me the “Goal King” so I wasn’t going to disagree with that.
Barton was a very good player. Still is, better than several current England internationals in fact.
Just like every egotistical footballer including me, he thought he was the best. I think only Lionel Messi can say that.
Barton was confident and never went into hiding on the pitch, never stopped running and never, ever, gave less than 100 per cent. He was passionate, a team man and great to have around. He listened, too. We played one away game at Middlesbrough when he verbally hammered Stephen Ireland, who was only a kid. Ireland had a word with me, a senior pro. So I had a word in turn.
“Joey, you can’t speak to him like that, he’s a kid,” I said. “He needs support.”
He could have told me where to go. Instead, he said: “You’re right Coley.” And then he apologised to Ireland. It takes a man to do that.
I would also sit with Joey after training when he was speaking to people from Sporting Chance clinic, who help sort out issues in the lives of sports people. We would have fascinating chats and Joey’s intelligence shone through. He was never afraid to speak honestly.
Barton will admit that he can be his own worst enemy. He has done some stupid, stupid things which he will live to regret. Stubbing a cigar out on a young player, getting sent off for Queens Park Rangers when they were fighting for survival, indiscretions at Newcastle United – where he otherwise did a fantastic job as a player. Hey, they happen, they don’t mean he is a bad lad. We’ve all got a bit of the devil in us sometimes, though Barton’s devil gets out more than most.
He has made some serious errors of judgement and served time because of them, yet I believe a lot of his problems come because he dares to speak out.
Football has a problem with people who speak their mind. You get cast as a bad apple for daring to have an opinion and don’t toe the party line, yet the 1.6 million people who follow him on Twitter chose to do so because they find him interesting.
I like it when he says what he thinks, like it when he questions authority and offers his opinions on the game rather than saying nothing.
I genuinely believe he is misunderstood by many. He also loves football. Before he moved to QPR last year, he texted to get my opinion on Mark Hughes as a manager. I could only offer one on Hughes the player, the top player. He had a thirst for information.
Barton could go down a storm in Marseille if he confirms his move there. His wholehearted approach will be appreciated by their deeply passionate fans. And they are; I’ve played there. I’ve also spoken about their fans with a former Marseille player, Eric Cantona.
They will let Joey know if he shirks in a game – not that there is a chance of that. Chris Waddle and Tony Cascarino became cult heroes at Marseille and I think Joey could become the same. He could be ideal for them and the move could be just what he needs, a fresh start away from England, a new chapter in his life.
I wish him well and, knowing him, he will be mugging his new teammates off from day one, slaughtering them for the way they dress. In French.
Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
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