NEWCASTLE United's summer of discontent just worsened.
For while Tweeting Joey Barton was certainly culpable in his own black and white downfall, there can be little doubt that United’s big promises back in January are looking somewhat hollow this morning.
The board insisted after Andy Carroll’s departure that every penny of the £35million recouped would be re-invested in the team but instead the net spend has been around £500,000 and the club are set to start the season without their two outstanding midfielders from last term.
It doesn’t much look like progress and while the balance sheet might be boosted by the removal of a contract worth some £60,000-a-week, the loss of Barton’s cutting edge, spirit, tenacity and goal threat is a major blow for Alan Pardew.
No doubt the board felt a line had been crossed when enfant terrible Barton tapped up a trio of withering Tweets in the car park at Elland Road. Having refused to speak to journalists in the mixed zone – “If I say what I think it might cause a riot,” he said – Barton simply couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. What had prompted his ire?
Supporters had spotted him arguing with both John Carver and Steve Stone during the warm-up and his agent Willie McKay told Talksport yesterday that the decision to strip him of corner kick and free-kick duties had irked him. It is understood he also wasn’t happy at being overlooked for the captaincy.
But in truth this has been coming for nearly a year – since the moment Barton stepped up to confront Derek Llambias in a no-holds-barred dressing room meeting following the sacking of Chris Hughton.
The midfielder gave his opinion freely and repeated those strident criticisms when Carroll was sold in January. On two occasions he had agreed a contract only to step back at the last minute – first saying he needed assurances that United remained ambitious and then taking issue with the length of the deal.
All the while he was letting people know behind-the-scenes what he made of Llambias and owner Mike Ashley, talking in critical terms about the pair at charity talk-ins towards the end of the season. Although journalists who attended stayed true to the ‘off-the-record’ agreement they made before walking through the doors, the comments circulated freely on messageboards and Twitter – and the club’s key men were aware of what was being said about them. It is understood that he once refused to shake Ashley’s hand at the training ground.
Given the robust, broker no discontent philosophy of the United board, that was always going to land him in trouble. Llambias rightly pointed to the fact United stood by the player through the trials and tribulations of his first two seasons at St James’ Park, yet he was showing a distinct lack of gratitude in his public approach.
Already angered at the way he had used his Twitter account to criticise them following Kevin Nolan’s sale, United were absolutely furious when Barton made public his grievances with the club’s transfer policy and general approach following Sunday’s defeat.
Add to that the fact that Barton gave a red-faced tongue lashing to his team-mates in the dressing room – including new arrival Yohan Cabaye and several younger players – and Newcastle felt he had become a disruptive, potentially poisonous influence on the team.
For a player who employs a PR advisor – White Stripes manager Ian Montone – it was not the smartest of moves to take to Twitter to express his feelings. Llambias consulted with Ashley and the decision was made to make him available on a free to prevent more internal strife and disruption from their ‘loose cannon’.
Pardew was at a managers’ meeting in the Midlands yesterday and was being advised to keep his counsel until the pre-Fiorentina press conference later in the week.
Having reacted to Nolan’s departure by agreeing with the club’s approach, it is unlikely he will depart from the philosophy of his paymasters – after all, it was a decision that ended up costing Kevin Keegan his job.
While there is sense in United trying to peddle a player who has so disrupted a pre-season campaign, where does it leave them before the Arsenal game at St James’ Park a week on Saturday?
The answer has to be considerably weaker than they were last season, when a team underpinned by the nous and savvy of Nolan and Barton managed to kick, spit and scrap their way to 11th in the Premier League.
Team spirit was the key to that finish but despite talk of the bonds formed in America, the undercurrents of discontent are becoming ripples. Danny Simpson, for example, took to Twitter to claim he was “lost for words” at the Barton announcement.
In terms of quality, too, they have lost the goal power of one of their key attacking influences. Cabaye brings flair, finesse and judging by Sunday’s efforts hard work – but he remains untested in the white hot atmosphere of the Premier League. Will he still be making lung busting runs in February? We know Barton would have been endeavouring to do so.
The midfielder may have written his own suicide note with his self-defeating actions of the past seven months, but Newcastle fans will be fearful that the club are creating problems too by its determination not to spend big money.
One well-placed source admitted Llambias and Ashley’s vision is “unsexy” in the short-term. But the club believe it is appealing in the long-term, with self-sufficiency the goal over the next few years.
It is an admirable aim, but in the here and now it has left United extremely vulnerable and rebellion fermenting on the terraces. Without a ball being kicked, pessimism is enveloping Newcastle once again.