“The referees are a little more lenient over there in England,” Bixente Lizarazu had warned on Sunday morning’s edition of Téléfoot, ahead of Joey Barton’s Ligue 1 debut for Marseille against Lille. Luckily for the midfielder, France’s leading man in black, Laurent Duhamel, didn’t adhere to type later that night. He decided to only book Barton for a studs-up challenge on Florent Balmont that could have seen him have the most truncated debut of an Englishman abroad since Jonathan Woodgate’s spectacular 2005 bow for Real Madrid.
After kicking his heels for most of his spell in Provence so far, Barton will feel he deserves a stroke of luck. The challenge spoke of a player short of match fitness rather than full of malice; a ropey first touch drawing him into the challenge. As he exasperatedly pointed out in a Monday press conference – which you might just have seen on video – there were plenty of good moments during his 75 minutes on the pitch; not least the sweeping diagonal ball that saw the goalbound Mathieu Valbuena brought down by Balmont who was consequently red-carded himself.
All in all it’s quite a start for Barton, with the match against the 2011 champions being followed by another Velodrome clash against Lyon, a direct rival at the top of the table, tonight. It’s a game in hand for both clubs – originally called off last month due to high winds – and Marseille will leapfrog Paris Saint-Germain and go top if they avoid defeat.
In terms of enjoying life at the top, it’s certainly a leap up from Queen’s Park Rangers, despite the London club’s ambition. With the ban he arrived with not extended to European competition, Barton already got to turn out (pre-Ligue 1 debut) in the Europa League against high-spec opposition including Fenerbahçe and Borussia Mönchengladbach (even scoring direct from a corner against the Bundesliga side), a pleasure that wouldn’t have been afforded him had he stayed in England.
It really is a fresh start. The key is that France is willing to give Barton a chance. It seemed in the past as if this might not be the case, with Mikaël Silvestre (who of course rejected Newcastle in 2007 to avoid playing with Barton) one of many friends of Ousmane Dabo still sore over the Englishman’s attack on him while the pair were at Manchester City.
To his credit, Silvestre eschewed the habitual pundit position of bigging up your mates and slyly digging your enemies when discussing Barton on French television station BeIn Sport ahead of Sunday’s game. “He could be just what Marseille need,” said Silvestre.
Barton is making an effort, with captain Steve Mandanda and defender Rod Fanni both attesting to his attempts to learn French – with varying degrees of mirth - in a Téléfoot feature at the weekend. His now-infamous, unwitting Allo Allo impression (like the amiable Steve McClaren at Twente before him) is easy to mock, but in reality it’s a subconsciously manifested expression of how much he’s trying to relate and communicate.
In this spirit, the midfielder has been on a charm offensive in recent weeks in preparation for his competitive assimilation, giving interviews aplenty and taking part in webchats with fans. Clearly he will never be to everybody’s taste, but Barton is giving everything to succeed. In terms of publicity in front of a curious French public fascinated by what they imagine as a typical Englishman, Marseille’s gamble is already paying off.