Mixed messages have been emerging from Elland Road over the past few days, leading up to and since the capture of Brentford winger Stuart Dallas. We’ve been told that Dallas is likely to be the end of any significant incoming business for Leeds United; but we’ve also heard from Adam Pearson that il Duce Massimo Cellino is prepared to sanction one, or possibly two more signings. This has naturally set tongues wagging and keyboards rattling as the Whites cognoscenti speculate on who else might yet arrive down LS11 way.
One name that refuses to go away is that of perennial bad boy Joey Barton, formally of QPR, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Olympique de Marseille and, for all we know, Borstal FC. Barton has had what might charitably be termed a troubled past. He’s proved himself on many an occasion not to be above a little thuggery, in much the same way that the sea is not above the clouds. Without doubt, he’s courted controversy and a certain measure of revulsion in those who believe that the beautiful game should be played beautifully or not at all. But there’s more to Barton than mindless violence and, undeniably, he’s a class above the vast majority of Championship midfielders in terms of pure football ability.
The pros and cons of Joey Barton are sharply delineated – he’s almost all black and white with very few shades of grey. On the negative side is the lack of discipline that has seen him on a porridge diet in his time, with several occasions on which he’s been bang to rights when put to trial by TV. Then again, Duncan Ferguson never let a spell in Barlinnie prevent him from becoming a legend in the game – something that, for all his notoriety, Barton has thus far signally failed to accomplish.
Still on the negative side, there’s Barton’s accustomed wage level. His habitual demands would see him fit into the Leeds United wage structure much as a quart fits into a pint pot. So, on the face of it, both his “attitude problem” (for want of a better phrase), and his affordability would seem to mitigate against him as a likely target for Yorkshire’s top club. But neither of these factors should necessarily prevent Barton from turning out in a Leeds United shirt.
The thing is, Joey is 32 now, with a senior career and earnings history going back 13 years. He will not be short of a bob or two – neither, surely, is he completely incapable of learning by experience when it comes to curbing that nasty temper. And on the plus side – the lad can play, far better than most of the opposition he’d meet in this league.
Looking for similar examples of players who might normally be expected to be both too expensive and too risky discipline-wise, the name of El Hadji Diouf springs irresistibly to mind. Diouf was the least likely of Elland Road recruits, having been a top-earner and a serial practitioner of some of football’s nastier tricks. But he duly came to Leeds, accepted relative peanuts in remuneration, cleaned up his act enough for his manager Warnock publicly to regret having compared him unfavourably to a sewer rat – and he made a moderate success of things in a team consisting mainly of players several classes of ability below him. Whether that’s enough of a precedent for us to be optimistic of seeing Barton in a Leeds United shirt is open to some doubt. But there’s one man who should be moving heaven and earth to make this happen – and that man is Joey Barton himself.
The fact of the matter is that Barton has possibly one shot left at writing himself indelibly into the pages of football history. He may or may not care about doing this – but any footballer worth his salt wants, ideally, to be regarded as a legend. And that, even today, is the opportunity afforded to the right calibre of player by Leeds United FC. After well over a decade in the shadows, and having plumbed hitherto unheard-of depths by sinking as low as the third tier, Leeds remains a giant of the game. The Elland Road club is, in fact, the last giant ever born – clubs have come to the fore since United did in the sixties, but not to such devastating effect and not for so long; certainly not to attain the rank of a footballing behemoth, as Leeds did from nowhere under the legendary, incomparable Don Revie.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Leeds United conferred legend status on characters as diametrically different from each other as Vinnie Jones and Gordon Strachan. That’s what being instrumental in revival and success for Leeds does for a player. And that’s what it could do, even at this late stage, for Joey Barton. As his career draws to a close, as he contemplates life after football and his descent into obscurity, that’s something that Mr. Barton should be thinking about extremely seriously. You’re a long time retired, after all.
It may well be that very nearly all of the Leeds transfer business is complete, after all. And if we do recruit more bodies, they’d more than likely be cover out wide and in central defence. But the need is still there for some versatile, commanding presence in midfield, too. And, sadly, the Vinnies and the Strachans are precious thin on the ground these days.
If Joey Barton had the sense he was born with – another conundrum not easily answered – he’d be prepared to walk barefoot over broken glass to Elland Road, there humbly to seek audience of Messrs. Cellino and Pearson (and maybe the physio team too, after miles barefoot over broken glass). He should be literally begging for the chance to play for Leeds, for his last shot at legend status. He should be promising to clean up his act and to become a role model for the youngsters and a hero to the fans. He should do all of this for the return of a reasonable pay-to-play deal, as befits an extremely wealthy man who has naught to lose, much to make up for – and a lasting reputation in football to gain.
Joey Barton – do you want to be a legend? Come to Leeds United, then… and, if you play your cards right, we might just arrange it for you.