Sunday, July 24, 2005

Even allowing for the fact that it’s close season, and there’s a dearth of actual football matches for the papers to cover, it’s a wee bit disturbing that the first two stories I read in yesterday’s sports section were about Joey Barton being sent home for brawling and Arsene Wenger getting impatient with the Dutch authorities for not dealing with Robin van Persie’s rape charges.

I’m not going to comment on Van Persie’s case other than that it’s depressing to hear yet another accusation of sexual assault against a footballer. I don’t know what Van Persie’s version of events is but the players’ usual defence in such cases is that the women involved are being opportunistic. Even if this (not entirely convincing) suggestion is true, it doesn’t absolve players of the responsibility to conduct themselves with care. I’m sure that when you’re young and disproportionately rich it’s easy to believe that you can do anything you like, but it’s essential to learn that this isn’t the case.

In Barton’s case, ‘brawling’ seems too soft a word. It suggests a healthy bit of manly rough-and-tumble. This particular altercation with a set of Everton fans apparently involved Barton biting Richard Dunne’s hand when he tried to separate his team-mate from the mob. Now, I recall doing this once or twice at school, because I wasn’t very physically adept. Back then it was labelled ‘fighting like a girl’.

I’m not sure what you label it when a 22-year-old man does it, but certainly this, and his antics at City’s Christmas party when he stubbed a lighted cigar into the eye of a youth team player, read like the everyday activities of the Joe Pesci character from Casino. City are considering transfer-listing Barton, perhaps fearing that he’ll stab Sun Jihai with a fountain pen or head down to London to ‘whack’ Shaun Wright-Phillips for disrespecting the club. The visceral nature of Barton’s poor conduct almost makes you nostalgic for the days of Eric Cantona, who at least did these things with a degree of showmanship.

Because players are assets, all too often clubs are terrified to let go of them because of conduct issues, but there does come a point where, however, talented a player is, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. It’s also quite depressing, as a fan, when your team includes a player you hate. Birmingham City complained bitterly about the ‘small minority’ of fans who effectively blocked the transfer of Lee Bowyer: I’d like to shake every member of this ‘small minority’ by the hand. They’re an example to us all.