Last night, it all kicked off on Twitter between two supposed former team mates.
In the space of just two angry hours on Twitter, Joey Barton slapped 20lbs of semtex on his future in the media and sat on the detonator. Intelligent, forthright and dynamic enough to join Gary Neville in his brave new world of Punditry v2.0, Barton had the potential to make more money out of talking about football than he ever did from playing it. But perhaps not now. For as much as producers love the idea of live TV that’s ‘close to the edge’, none of them actually want it to scream over the edge at high speed, lights flashing and horn blaring. Who would put Barton next to a live microphone now?
This wasn’t entirely Barton’s fault, of course. Dietmar Hamman’s initial message, telling his former team-mate to stay out of club affairs, was preachy and pompous, the kind of thing a senior pro tells a precocious youth player. His snide remarks about prison and his repeated use of the mocking hashtag ‘#englandinternational’ were also unnecessarily provocative. If you’re going to pull a cat’s tail, you can’t really complain when you get a mouth full of claws.
But there are unspoken ‘rules of engagement’ in any public dispute that Barton doesn’t seem to comprehend. As Sean Connery once opined, if they pull a knife, you pull a gun. That’s how you win in Chicago. You don’t see their knife and raise them a nuclear bomb, reducing their home town to dust, smoke and a couple of mildly concussed cockroaches. That’s taking things a little too far, and that was Barton’s biggest mistake of the night. When he made those unfounded and unrepeatable allegations about Hamman, he put the fear of God into an industry still scarred by the repercussions of one dirty phonecall to Andrew Sachs.
All of which is something of a shame. At the risk of sounding like a mad scientist, gazing over his bubbling petri dishes, this one had great potential. As anyone who has ever watched Jamie Redknapp will know, punditry can be compromised by vested interest. Redknapp is passionate about football and he seems like a lovely man, but he is unlikely ever to put the boot in on his cousin at Chelsea or his dad at Queens Park Rangers, or indeed anyone that he ever played with and still enjoys a cheeky hour on the Wii with while his equally lovely wife Louise is out being lovely to people.
You sense that wouldn’t be the case with Barton. Up until this week, you’d imagine Barton merely aiming snide and hugely entertaining digs at some of the nicest men in the game. Now, all of a sudden, you can see Barton scampering across the line of acceptability and unleashing a devastating dossier of marital infidelity, complete with times, dates and favoured positions.
You might want to believe that Barton is just a prisoner of circumstance, burdened with a raw intelligence that marks him as an outsider in an industry not known for empathy or understanding. But when he does things like this, it’s easier for people to conclude that he’s just a nasty piece of work. The British public aren’t keen on nasty pieces of work. They like rogues, they like charming scoundrels, but they’re not overly positive about one-man social wrecking balls who red-line in a matter of tweets.
This morning, Barton apologised for his role in the affair, something which should be acknowledged and commended. Unfortunately for him and his future plans, the damage might already have been done.
Click here to read more from Iain Macintosh.
Click here to check out our exclusive infographic about footballers on Twitter.