"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
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Joey Barton, London Simon and Schuster, 2016. ISBN 9781 4711 4758 6An exceptional book. Don’t be put off by your preconceptions of Joey Barton. He is honest about his problems and very engaging. The greatest strength of the book is his analysis of his world.
He describes in great detail the world in which he grew up – with drugs everywhere, violence and murders all around. When he is 12 an older buy steals his football and his father hands him a rounders bag with which he successfully recovers his ball. His father then teaches him techniques for fighting older boys, of which he says: “As I grew up, a mess of conflicting emotions, I railed against him for not teaching me something more constructive”.
While not condoning his behaviour, he uses his upbringing where his “values were forged in a brutal environment” to explain why his first reaction is often to react with violence. He sees a positive in his background – the development of strength of mind, adding: “if I had been born with the same footballing ability, but to middle class parents, I don’t think I would have made it. I would have been a more balanced human being, but I wouldn’t have been able to survive the turbulence of a Premier League career. Aggression gives the necessary edge”.
His self-analysis is fascinating. He suggests that his weaknesses are as important as his strengths in any attempt to understand him. His says that he went through his early life being told that he would fail by everyone around him. He wrestles with the dilemma that “the fiery nature which made me an effective footballer was also making me a nasty bastard”. But then as he says, football has an unerring knack of highlighting personality defects.
He describes his red card for QPR against Manchester City in the Premier League decider, very honestly in these words: “Reality, and guilt, kicks in as I walk down the tunnel of my own accord. I’ve fucked my team. I’ve screwed things up, yet again. I am in deep, deep shit. As I stand under the shower, I do what I tend to do in such circumstances. I distance myself from the inevitable consequences, try to deflect blame”.
He describes his early struggles to make it as a young footballer in graphic terms. He had to analyse his team-mates – in a dig eat dog situation - and get an advantage over them, initially by out-working or out-thinking them. He had an “overpowering hunger to play professional football” or in another of his choice phases: a “‘fuck you’ mentality”. He says it is like a situation where there was only one place at the dinner table, and he was determined to be the one who was going to eat. At one stage he was the fifth best mid-field player at a club. His attitude to his “team-mates” was: “The four lads ahead of me in my preferred position might as well have had targets imprinted on their foreheads”.
His analysis of the world of pro football, which “infantilises young men, showers them with material rewards and gives them an excuse never to grow up” is profound. He argues that to be successful you cannot be “normal” like the normal people who go to work every day and follow the same routine: “Successful footballers are not normal. They are borderline psychotic, because they will trample over anyone who gets in their way... footballers are emotionally stunted, and liable to struggle in an environment that demands constant improvement and self-justification”. He says of former team-mate, Peter Schmeichel: “He was very selfish, very self-centred, very ego-driven, but he was a fucking winner”.
Very unusually in this kind of book, he talks about money and being offered £76,000 a week at QPR – “silly money, but would you have turned it down?” The result is, he suggests, a confused kid “earning 50 times more than his dad without being stretched or valued by the club that is paying him a fortune”.
His belief that money gives you a certain status, but it doesn’t make you happy and his concern at the imbalance between the accumulation of obscene wealth and the rest of society are, again, unusual opinions to find in a football autobiography. But there are many surprises in Joseph Barton’s book including ideas he picked up from reading Aristotle, Seneca and Plato.
Alongside the lessons for life there are some really interesting insights into football. When QPR were to play Derby County in the play-off final, QPR recognized that Derby had better players so Barton worked with Harry Rednapp and his coaches to devised a plan to beat a better team – and they succeeded. The book also includes pages of Barton’s notes showing how he prepared for a game. He refers to what he calls “that mythological point” that Neil Warnock had lost the dressing room and then spends more than a page explaining what it means with reference to the relationships between players and managers.
This is a brilliant book which goes so much deeper than a typical sports autobiography giving the reader not only deeper insights into the player and the person but also into the hidden and fascinating world of professional football.