Barton risks career with Twitter antics

The 30-year-old's use of social media to insult, goad and reveal is now creating problems at Marseille, raising the possibility of a summer return to England desired by no one
By Liam Twomey

On Monday, the French Football Federation’s ethical committee will come face-to-face with one Joseph Anthony Barton for the first time. If reading a list of the accused’s prior misdemeanours forms any part of the procedure, every member will surely end up claiming overtime.

The comments for which Barton will almost certainly face sanction – labelling Paris Saint-Germain captain Thiago Silva an “overweight ladyboy” and “transsexual” on Twitter – have been greeted with a mixture of outrage and disgust by many in France. Sports daily L’Equipe ran the story on its front page, adorned with the headline “Is this the British sense of humour?”

"Well I think that proves a lot. What an absolute farce. 12 games for violent conduct and only 4 for that. FA should be embarrassed #shambles"
"I really don't like that p****, in fact I honestly despise him... Goodnight."
"You where a good player. Won more than me, yeah. Thats were you en mate on the pitch. Ur life's a car crash. #pipedown"
"Neymar is the Justin Bieber of football. Brilliant on the old You Tube. Cat p*** in reality..."
"Thiago Silva. That the same p**** thats been injured all season. Another over rated Brazilian. Sort your hamstrings out FatBoy..."
Reaction on this side of the Channel, however, was not of mirth, but genuine surprise at the fact it has taken over seven months for the 30-year-old’s words or actions to attract serious attention from the relevant authorities and condemnation from the wider French football community. After all, Barton became an agent provocateur long before he found the home of the expression.

Controversy is just what he does. Whether provoking others – yanking Gervinho to his feet with a snarl before tumbling to the floor like a discarded bag of Maris Pipers under the weight of the Ivorian’s mighty palm in August 2011 – or himself – responding to Silva’s sneery “who are you” remarks with the over-the-top questioning of the Brazilian’s gender – it is clear Barton lives for confrontation.

Admittedly he is also, in relative terms, a reformed character. Since serving 77 days of a six-month prison term for assault in the summer of 2008, Barton has largely kept the most vicious edges of his rage in check, stopped drinking to excess and confined his lust for controversy to the football pitch. Or Twitter, which he has seized upon as a means of taking control of his own public image.

On it, he can sometimes be entertaining, particularly when engaging in more altruistic activities such as baiting Piers Morgan, fanatical Justin Bieber fans or the cast of 'The Only Way is Essex'.

His propensity for quoting the likes of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, while sometimes with questionable sincerity, is at least educational. And he can even be socially relevant, never more so than when lending his considerable online voice to the cause of the Hillsborough families.

Yet his unwavering candour, which can be refreshing but more often reveals a tactless bore who falls well short of the misunderstood bohemian philosophiser he aspires to be, is also creating a lingering storm which threatens to put paid to a troubled but often lucrative career.

Modern football, with its risk-averse media training, stage-managed interviews and carefully-worded official statements, simply does not cater even for the more redeeming aspects of Barton’s self-styled and fiercely independent online persona, never mind the insults directed at Silva, Neymar and many others.

In an age where the link between PR and commercial income is becoming more clearly defined, clubs go to great lengths to handle key business in private. Yet at the same time, social media has created a whole new realm in which individual players can step out of line.

Barton, predictably, has fallen foul of this changing landscape more frequently than any other footballer. His Twitter posturing while attempting to negotiate a contract extension at Newcastle in the summer of 2011 led to the club making him available on a free transfer.

Less than a year later, QPR boss Mark Hughes considered banning his then-captain from speaking to his legions of online followers in the wake of some stunningly ill-advised comments on an ongoing John Terry court case. He opted against it, but the combination of Barton’s relentless tweeting and a minute of madness against Manchester City soon created baggage too heavy to endure.

At first France, and in particular Marseille, appeared a good fit. The club’s ultras greeted him with the inspired Smiths-themed banner ‘Welcome Sweet and Tender Hooligan’. He in turn responded with a comical faux-French accent, decent performances, and largely kept his Twitter rants to non-footballing topics.

Yet the Silva episode, together with the rash online declaration of an end to his QPR career - which prompted a withering response from Tony Fernandes and denials of any agreement by officials from both sides - signals a shift back into familiar territory. His 2.1 million-strong following can once again put their feet up and wait, with morbid curiosity, to see what career hole he digs for himself next.

At present, Barton is posing problems for Marseille while alienating his parent club, raising the distinct possibility of an enforced return to England, tail firmly between legs, in the summer. Such a prospect would satisfy neither him nor a British public which has long since disowned him.

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