x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Any port in a storm for Joey Barton

The English midfielder has moved to the maritime city of Marseille in the latest bid to calm his turbulent career, writes Ian Hawkey .

Joey Barton, left, with Vincent Labrune, the Marseille president, joined the club on a season long loan.
Joey Barton, left, with Vincent Labrune, the Marseille president, joined the club on a season long loan.

Twenty years ago, a notorious French footballer from Marseille left his native country for a new life in England. He was in his mid-20s, but had accumulated so many disciplinary problems, including a scrap with one of his own teammates and several spats with officials, on and off the pitch, that he seemed to be running out of potential employers in France, having played for six clubs already. He was, though, highly talented and an international.

His name was Eric Cantona, the same name that is sung, 15 years after he retired, around Old Trafford as a homage to a player who defined an epoch and whose individual impact on a foreign league, the English top flight, was an important in its own way as Alfredo Di Stefano's had been on Spanish football in the 1950s, or Diego Maradona's was on Serie A in the 1980s.

Cantona in many ways was a typical Marseilleise, a man with the brusqueness and rough edges of France's biggest port, but with a whimsical, enigmatic streak, too. He played only briefly for his hometown club, and had long since settled into his home-from-home in Manchester when Marseille enjoyed their finest hour, winning the European Cup in 1993.

Marseille embark on a lesser European adventure next Thursday, in the Europa League, and expectations are that an Englishman will make his debut for them at Fenerbahce that night. He is Joey Barton, the 30-year-old England international midfielder - he has one cap - whose career has, it would be fair to report, been shaped to a large extent by his anger-management issues and his clashes with authority.

He once fought so badly with a teammate, while at Newcastle United, that his colleague required hospital treatment for his injuries. Unlike Cantona, he has also served time in prison for one of a series of off-field incidents involving violence.

But, like Cantona, Barton is hoping a move across the English channel will bring him stability and professional fulfilment. He has joined Marseille on loan from Queens Park Rangers, for whom his last match, at the end of the 2011/12 season, brought him the sixth red card of his career and a 12-match ban - because the initial offence, an elbow in the face of Manchester City's Carlos Tevez, was aggravated by further attacks on other City players.

QPR were done with him; Marseille, though, were willing to accept that his ban might carry over into French domestic football. The French league has confirmed it will, so Ligue 1 must wait until November to see Barton, who comes from the rough-edged English port city of Liverpool, in action, although he is available for European games.

France is intrigued by him. Just as Cantona would from time to time fascinate English people by quoting poetry or speaking in baffling metaphors, Barton, via social media, has been known to cite philosophers in quotations. He has opinions on music and popular culture.

He is not anywhere near as talented a footballer as Cantona, but, on his day, Barton can galvanise a team from central midfield, not merely through his pugnacity but with intelligent use of the ball.

Marseille's new coach, Elie Baup, ushered Barton into the club by describing him as a "fine box-to-box player", using the English term. Commentators wondered, with smiles, if Baup had meant to describe him simply as a "boxer".

He is certainly Marseille's highest-profile addition of a summer. Because of their need to ease debts, most of Marseille's transfer activity was limited to acquisitions from lower divisions. The contrast between the spending of Marseille, Ligue 1's most popular club, and their rivals from the capital, cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain, is stark: PSG have invested over €100 million (Dh478.7m) in new stars; Marseille have spent less than €3m.

And yet, who sits this morning at the top of the table? OM. They take to Nancy tomorrow a 100 per cent record, four wins from their first four games. Nobody expects Marseille to go on and win the league, given PSG's strength and quality, but stranger things have happened.

Back in 1992, Leeds United looked unlikely English champions. They were the club the exiled Cantona first joined. He picked up a title at Leeds then swiftly moved on to Manchester, where several more medals would follow as the rebel, never entirely tamed, flourished and became adored.

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