|"I can LITERALLY punch you with either of these babies"|
But no amount of Bushby praying at the shrine of Jamie Redknapp he’s erected in his cupboard in the hope of a ‘literally’ slip-up, or Rob repeatedly trying to solicit statues of you from Mohamed Al-Fayed, can mask the fact that when you speak the truth – or at least attempt to – Magic Spongers is inclined to give you some credit. Or at least maybe consider comparing you with an apple.
Imagine our surprise then, when this week’s soothsayer came out of the woodwork in the form of one Joseph Barton. Yes, him of the cigars and the fighting and the quite glorious deliveries onto Andy Carroll’s lid every Saturday. Now herein lies the issue. Barton is probably one of the best midfielders in the country, as he (almost) claimed. Barton speaks the truth about England, presumably because he is a Magic Spongers reader. Barton, more than anything, has previous as a troubled young man (see his most recent comments about his fight with Ousmane Dabo). BUT when he talks about football, it generally makes a lot of sense.
The strangest thing about all this is that it’s not uncommon. Craig ‘golf club karaoke/chair chucking maniac incident’ Bellamy can be a thoughtful and erudite speaker (and earned a massive boost to his kudos when he slated Terry in front of the Sky cameras last season, the clever bastard). Eric Cantona, the man who broke the bloody fourth wall and booted someone in the chest, is often held up as the greatest philosopher the game has ever known and has recently been seen calling for a run on the banks of France.
"We English will play the next 50 World Cups and we'll never win one,” Barton said amid loud, sarcastic cheering from our general direction. “The people in charge at the FA played football maybe 50 or 60 years ago and still think that we can win a World Cup in the same way we did in 1966.” Such refreshing honesty, Joey. Any ideas how this dire lookout for the national side might be improved? "Honestly, I think I'm the best [English midfielder].” Oh right.
In fairness to him though, Barton has five goals and seven assists this season. And he has played very well. He’s probably worthy of a place in the England team – if Fabio Capello is to persist with Andy Carroll up front – on the basis of their previous understanding at club level. Although Barton played wide for Newcastle early in the season, he could well be a contender for the potential third spot in the middle of midfield, assuming that Wilshere and Parker continue to flourish and Capello continues to eschew 4-4-2 (which he probably won’t).
But back to our original quandary. Why are the nutcases always the ones that say stuff worth listening to? Perhaps it all boils down to a very English suspicion of honesty if there is an undertone of arrogance or hypocrisy contained therein. The French wouldn’t have problems with such candour. But the problem is manifest when the one being blunt is such a widely detested figure as Barton is.
Maybe it’s our obsession with trying to define these sorts of characters. A Jack Wilshere or Gareth Barry press conference could quite easily be used to get your toddler off to sleep after too many Skittles. But if someone as unpredictably batshit mental as Diego Maradona or Roy Keane or Barton comes on, we find ourselves hanging on their every word, as if they’re about to let slip an explanation, a defining influence that makes them who they are. It’s as if we’ve only ever heard onions mindlessly droning on in press conferences about their myriad virtues in cooking, only for an apple to turn up and start chucking a Waldorf salad around. Onions can’t compete. Onions might be more dependable for putting in your soup, but in reality they aren’t even in the same league.
Naturally, in the world of murky cliché we call modern football, it’s debateable if anyone ever says anything of meaning or consequence anyway. But compare the following: “I am grateful to my players and to the Argentinian people. I thank no one but them. The rest, keep on sucking d**ks.” (Maradona); and “When you are a rich man you are proud to own a Rolls Royce and when you are a poor man you are proud to own a Renault” (Cantona), with “We have got a backbone of English players in the side who like the banter” (Terry) and “When you watch a World Cup, you hope one day you will be playing in a World Cup finals” (James Milner), and its not difficult to see why the more ‘colourful’ characters are immeasurably more interesting.
Interesting, but complex. There are equally eloquent speakers, of course, who will toe the party line and secure a punditry job at the end of it all (no, we don’t know how Ian Dowie managed it either), whereas the real insight – Barton, Bellamy et al – will likely never be invited into the Sky studios a la Gary Neville. Neville, in fact, is just the right kind of controversial to be involved. Vocal, spiky, but not violent. Still within the bubble of professional football and not sullied by exposure to the real world.
Owen Slot’s piece on Craig Bellamy for the Times in 2009 sums this juxtaposition up best. “The Bellamy that you learn about through this African project [he has built and given his name to a football academy in Sierra Leone] is so far away from the footballer who put his hand in the face of a “fan” on Sunday [Bellamy got involved with a pitch invader]”, Slot says, “it is hard to work out where the two meet. At what stage does the responsible philanthropist turn into the short-fuse?” Something for you to ponder there the next time you hear a Premiership footballer say “like I say” for the 43rd time in a post-match interview.