Say what you like about Joey Barton – most people do. But one thing you could never accuse him of is lacking fortitude.
In securing his long drawn-out deal to Marseille – which will be completed in the coming days – Barton is set to become something of a rarity in British footballing circles. Not because he tweets his every thought and not because he reads fiction or listens to The Smiths, but because he’s taken a leap of faith into a starkly alien culture; something so very few of our narrow-minded modern players are brave enough to do.
It says a lot about the British mentality that of Europe’s top footballing nations we have had, on average, 300% less exports this century. But then as a nation we are typically sceptical of the unknown. We know what we like and we like what we know; it’s our way or the highway. Which is why our most-visited holiday destinations include Marbella, Tenerife and Benidorm – where full English fry-ups, red-top newspapers and bitter beer are deep ingrained into the sub-culture.
And so it is for our modern footballers – set in their very British ways and unwilling to spread their wings. Since the advent of the Premier League twenty years ago, our domestic league has become the world’s richest. As such, very few of our top players have seen any point in leaving it: Sure, we don’t have weather to top up the tan, but you’ll never get a dicky belly from drinking tap water from a mock-Tudor mansion in Hertfordshire. And besides, sun beds become a mere in-home accessory when you’re on £100,000 a week.
In this column last week, I wrote of the significant continental expeditions that have helped shape the ways of Brendan Rodgers, one of Britain’s most progressive young managers. But sadly that doesn’t mean our players can appreciate the benefits of embracing a different footballing ethos themselves.
Indeed you can count on one hand the number household names that have had the courage of their convictions in Europe’s rival leagues in recent years, which is why as far as I’m concerned Barton deserves kudos for taking this pioneering plunge. Like a doctor taking a sabbatical on an Israeli kibbutz, Joey is broadening his horizons, for his own development as much as for his life experience. Bravo, I say.
There is a risk factor here, of course. For every Beckham or McManaman, who embraced the culture both on and off the pitch, there is a Woodgate or a Keane, who failed to settle.
Even in eras gone by, when it was rife for our players to migrate because of the heightened riches available in Italy, Spain and Germany, the chance of our expensive exports replicating their form on foreign territory was in the balance. Gazza, for all his guile, rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in Rome, Dennis Law fell out of love with Torino as quickly as he’d fallen in love with it, and Ian Rush returned from Juventus with his tail between his legs after one solitary season, infamously stating: “It was like living in a foreign country.”
Adapting to and embracing the culture on and off the pitch are particular challenges Barton will face at Marseille, and all the while his battle to tackle his own personal demons will continue. But something tells me that with his deep-thinking approach, sound technique and unquestionable fortitude, Monsiuer Barton could prove to be a huge success in France, where his passion, craft and footballing intelligence will be met with widespread appreciation.
Say what you like about Joey Barton – most people do. But this leap of faith from football's self-proclaimed culture vulture will buck a trend that needs bucking. And what’s more, it has the potential to bring him the stability and success his talent deserves. Bravo to that.
Read more from Bet.Unibet Editor Ben Cove HERE.