KEVIN Keegan has told Newcastle United fans it will be “four or five weeks” before they see Joey Barton in action – even if the controversial midfielder escapes an FA ban.
Barton faces a hearing on Wednesday to answer charges of violent conduct for his training ground attack on then-Manchester City player Ousmane Dabo with suggestions from Soho Square he could face a suspension of 15 games.
But even if the Liverpudlian successfully fights the charge – as he intends to – his manager still believes it will be some time before the 25-year-old is ready for first-team football again.
Barton’s preparations for the new season have had to take place on the exercise yard at Strangeways Prison after the midfielder served half of a six-month sentence for another offence.
He was found guilty of assault for a late-night incident in Liverpool city centre which saw Barton attack a passer-by in the street. Having only returned to training on Wednesday of last week, the one-cap England international is well behind his team-mates as they gear up for the coming campaign.
“Joey’s fine but he won’t be featuring in any games until we get him match fit,” said Keegan. “He came back in for training last Wednesday as we flew out to Mallorca. There is no way he can regain match fitness between now and the start of the season (which from Newcastle’s perspective begins with a trip to Manchester United on August 17).
“There’s no way it would be sensible to give him a game at the moment. Obviously, with the injuries we’ve got you could throw him into a friendly like the PSV game (which Newcastle played on Wednesday) but that would be crazy because he’s got to get match fit.”
Like Michael Owen, who will sit out Saturday’s final pre-season friendly at home to Valencia with a calf strain, Barton will have to make up the difference entirely on the training ground.
“Normally you need a month to five weeks to get match fit and that’s why we bring the players back for pre-season training five weeks before (the start of the season) and then play some games,” Keegan explained. “The hard part for the people like Joey and the lads who have been injured is the games have gone now and you almost have to do it all in training.
“It can be done because you can have practice games yourselves and simulate friendlies like the PSV game but it doesn’t matter how hard they work on their fitness, however fit they are, when it comes to playing in their first real game you think to yourself – as Habib Beye said on Wednesday – ‘I’m empty’. Matches get you fit.”
Keegan, who also managed the controversy-dogged Barton at Manchester City, declared himself delighted with the £6m midfielder’s attitude following his release from prison.
“Joey has been working very hard on a fitness programme and is just getting his head down, which is what he has done ever since I came back into this club,” he said. “His training and everything, his attitude has been excellent while I’ve been at this club. I’ve spoken to him and know he just wants to get back to playing football – it’s as simple as that. “