Wednesday 6 May ~
Today's newspapers are full of condemnation for "human wrecking ball" Joey Barton, both for his wild lunge at Xabi Alonso at Anfield and for his reaction to a post-match dressing down from Alan Shearer. Barton's representatives have said they will contest any attempt to sack him – he has three years left on a contract worth £65,000 per week – while another "source close to the player" is quoted as saying "I could not rule out Joey pulling on a black and white shirt next season".
Nonetheless his Newcastle career seems to be over – if not his football career. Barton has been jailed for a street assault and received a suspended sentence, which doesn't expire until July 2010, for an attack on a team-mate at Man City but there are already three clubs said to have made enquiries about signing him – Bolton, Portsmouth and Blackburn. Violence always has its uses in football. Indeed it is often celebrated, as the publication of a new website poll demonstrates.
Yesterday a list of the "all-time football hardmen" was published by Sportingfix, a site that also recently cranked out Top Ten Facts About St George's Day and some captivating stats comparing how often men talk about sport compared to sex. Roy Keane topped the poll ahead of Ron Harris and Vinnie Jones. Only three current players make the top 20, apparently because "three-quarters of fans reckon today's players are 'nancyboys' compared to stars of the past".
Joey Barton will figure high in such lists in a few years' time, when his various assaults are no longer fresh in the collective memory. In fact he may well follow the path taken by Ron Harris, among others, in turning up regularly in the tabloids and TV documentaries to complain that the latest generation of hard players aren't a patch on his contemporaries. The cult of the thug isn't exclusive to football, of course – no build-up to a British Lions rugby tour would be complete without former players reminiscing about how they thumped or butted or raked someone while the referee wasn't looking (but they were always fair too, never nasty like some they could name today).
For all the outrage rightly sparked by Barton's latest transgression, a lot of people actually enjoy watching, and reading about, violence in football. They'd stop short of admitting it today when the sports pages carry pictures of a smiling Barton standing over the crumpled figure of Xabi Alonso but they'll buy the hard-man DVDs and the self-serving autobiographies whose principal selling-points are detailed descriptions of assaults on opponents, most of whom will have "had it coming" for various reasons.
Today's Daily Express quotes an employment lawyer as saying that Newcastle will be able to sack Barton if they can prove a case of "gross misconduct". A more likely outcome is that the player will be taken off their hands in a month or so by a Premier League club whose manager will declare that Barton "deserves one more chance to prove himself", thereby adding another chapter to what will be an eagerly anticipated book.