Now is the time to drop Joey Barton

A NEWCASTLE midfielder whose reputed ability should see him dominating games remains a passenger.

Joey Barton

IT is only two-and-a-half years since he made his debut for his country, and less time still since he saw fit to brand his then club-mates as "sub-standard".

Before he had even pulled on an England shirt, he was criticising the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard for publishing autobiographies on the back of World Cup failure. So now, to say the least, Joey Barton is conspicuous by his silence.

Never mind under-performing team-mates or other people’s ghost-written memoirs, his own form – in a distinctly sub-standard division – is nothing to write home about.

Thankfully, Newcastle United’s unpredictably purposeful start to the season under an increasingly assertive caretaker manager has more than covered for Barton’s diffidence.

But a measure of just how assertive Chris Hughton can be is whether he is brave enough to administer the Scouser, a star graduate of the caring, sharing Sporting Chance clinic, some tough love . . . by binning him from his starting XI.

Never mind Barton’s time spent before the bench, a spell on the bench is in order for someone whose struggle to pull his weight among players finally tugging in the same direction is becoming painfully obvious. Where once a trip to a place like Peterborough might have been deemed barely worthy of his talents, the opposite is now true. Where once he could expect to be rested for games like the Carling Cup tie at London Road, he should now expect to be dropped – and dropped for the duration, rather than just tonight’s 90 or 120 minutes.

When he became Sam Allardyce’s first signing for Newcastle in June 2007, the doubts over the deal centred on Barton the man, rather than Barton the footballer. He arrived on Tyneside with inner demons, but touted as a devil of a central midfielder who bore genuine comparison – fanciful as it may seem now – with the likes of Gerrard, another product of the mean streets of the Liverpool suburb of Huyton.

For most of the last two years, Barton’s battles with those demons, in between injuries, have been so public – and so prolific – that the issue of his actual performances in a black and white shirt has become by the bye.

That McDonalds brawl, a prison term, that foul on Xabi Alonso, his fall-out with Alan Shearer . . . the charge list has grown ever longer.

So by the bye, in fact, that when high roller after high roller left Newcastle this summer, keeping hold of a player whose stock should have been at rock bottom after he sat out United’s failed survival mission through suspension was deemed a necessity.

Now, though, out of the glare of a tabloid spotlight almost permanently trained on the Premier League, there is no disguising the harsh reality of Barton’s situation: a man whose reputed ability should see him bossing games in the Championship remains what he has too often been at St James’s Park: a passenger, if no longer unruly.

Only during a fleeting purple patch under Kevin Keegan towards the end of the season before last has the enfant terrible come good on any consistent basis for Newcastle. And the former wild man has rarely looked more like a little boy lost than on Saturday, when he failed to justify his dubious selection ahead of the unlucky Danny Guthrie against Plymouth.

Having been deployed in an unfamiliar wide role, Barton was back in the middle of things against extremely modest opposition, but was anything but the main man, sending pass after pass astray and showing precious little of the ability to drive from box to box which first persuaded Newcastle to overlook his faults. So much so that his reaction to being hauled off after an hour was one of resignation rather than rage. Never mind losing his head, the worry now is that Barton has lost the ability to direct his own midfield and run others’ ragged. Newcastle have no shortage of honest toilers to man their engine room. The work ethic once alien to the side is now its saving grace. What they need from Barton is inspiration.

The impact made by Guthrie after replacing Barton was dramatic on Saturday, with the substitute contributing as much or more in a minute than the starter had in the previous 60, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Nor should it go overlooked when Hughton comes to pick a side to take on that of another man to whom Barton was once likened, Roy Keane, at Ipswich on Saturday.

If Barton keeps his place at Portman Road, it would seem that in a star-shorn dressing room in which all men are equal, some are still more equal than others.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer