Tweet nothings

Not everyone is convinced by the crocodile tears and PR onslaught of a controversial midfielder’s transfer saga, Mark Brophy among them.

Joey Barton’s departure from Newcastle United a few days before the end of August was the end to a long, tortuous tale. The club claim he drew away from negotiations on a new contract shortly after the sale of Andy Carroll without replacement in January, followed by the withdrawal of their contract offer, and ever since it has seemed likely that Barton would leave. Despite other influential players also leaving in that period, Barton’s public pronouncements through the summer have guided the story rather than the series of transfers.

In terms of events the narrative is a straightforward one. A player concerned about the direction their club is taking, and seeking a new and improved contract with a year to go on the old one, doesn’t receive an offer meeting his expectations. As the summer draws on the player engineers a bust-up with club staff and is informed he can leave immediately on a free. Just before the end of the transfer window another club makes an offer which he accepts.

What is different here from, say, Samir Nasri’s move from Arsenal to Manchester City is Barton’s use of social media to communicate directly with fans. Whereas Nasri criticised Arsenal supporters both before and after his move was complete, Barton tweeted his version of events always in a way guaranteed to appeal to Newcastle fans. The bust-up itself partially took place on Twitter, Barton repeatedly criticising the way the club was run, though he was careful to restrict his criticism to the club hierarchy.

He claimed he would only leave for football reasons to a Champions League club, his frustration at the club’s transfer dealings being a factor. He then claimed he wanted to stay but was continuing to wait for a contract offer from the club. Even at the 11th hour, having spoken to QPR, his eventual destination, he communicated his need for time and space to think, the inference being that he was torn by the possibility of leaving a club for which he felt a genuine affinity.

The saga as viewed through the Barton prism fed into widespread supporter disquiet at the running of the club. He portrayed himself as a victim, being forced out by a club wishing to rid itself of a high-earning player who no longer fitted their preferred profile. There’s a certain amount of truth to this in the sense that if the club felt he was worth it they would have offered him more. A display of reluctance to leave even when offered more money again played to the wish of the fans to believe that the player feels the same as they do.

Many fans took his tweets at face value, which gained him considerable support in the stand-off. That might not have been true had he attempted to put his case via more traditional media, being filtered by the view of the reporter in question. If Barton’s primary purpose was to highlight the club selling last season’s best performers without adequate replacement, then it is ironic that his actions had the opposite effect, in diverting focus from worries about the club overall onto endless discussion of himself.

The Twitter rant that provoked his transfer listing did not precipitate a change in modus operandi at the club but instead created an opportunity to gain a lucrative transfer for himself. The Champions League suitors happily confirmed initially by his agent failed to materialise. He leaves to a club with a no more impressive list of summer transfers than Newcastle, though with better communication of their ambitious vision for the future following a very recent takeover.

With a year left on his contract he had no need to go anywhere immediately and, whatever reluctance to leave he may have felt, leave he eventually did. So this cannot in truth be portrayed as a move for footballing betterment, with neither club likely to trouble trophy engravers any time soon. If leaving by choice, as seems to be the case, the improved contract must have helped concentrate Barton’s mind. Now the transfer has gone through, it is his protestations of loyalty which most jar, a 21st century equivalent of badge-kissing.

Why then did Barton bother with a PR exercise in self-justification aimed at fans of a club he was agitating to leave, if that is what he was doing? Cod psychology might suggest Barton’s overriding need to be loved, but he could more reasonably have been driven by a wish to maintain the possibility that the interest of other clubs would persuade Newcastle to offer the contract he desired. If Barton’s time at Newcastle is to have a legacy, it may be that players become aware of an easy method of hedging their bets publicly while pushing for a lucrative move behind the scenes. 

From WSC 296 October 2011