This is a piece I did for the programme for last night’s big match, Manch…., I mean Burnley v Barnsley. Pix on twitter from a while back!
So Joey Barton is a total scumbag, is he not? That would I suspect be the view of most football fans and perhaps also people he has played with, fought with, argued with, not to mention the managers he has driven to distraction. Oh, yes, and he went to jail for assault and affray, did he not?
Until recently, I had only ever ‘met’ him via twitter, a place where a lot of footballers these days seem to spend more time than they do on the training ground. But it was because of those virtual meetings on the social media that I got to meet him in person. I was in France finishing a book, about two hours north of Marseille, where Barton is currently enjoying a loan spell from QPR. He invited me to a match, at home to Valenciennes, and dinner afterwards, and said I could bring as many friends and family as I liked.
Let me first of all say, to those diehard Clarets who think that we should only ever go to Burnley matches, that on the day in question, we were supposed to play Huddersfield but it was postponed as they were still involved in the FA Cup. Also, I should say that as we have been going to the same part of France on holiday for 30 years, Marseille has been my French team for as long as I can remember. I saw Chris Waddle play for them several times, and the last time I had a post match dinner with a player, the match was against Toulouse, and the player was Trevor Steven. You see, I find Burnley connections everywhere. When I had dinner with Trevor, I took Peter Mandelson (not the biggest football fan in the world) and partly as a result, because he was so impressed by the use of loud music to build up the atmosphere, (they still use Van Halem’s Jump when the players come out) we had a rethink of our use of music at election campaign rallies.
This time I took my son Calum, a Blackburn-born émigré called Craig who runs cycling holidays near Mont Ventoux, and two friends from Puymeras, the village we have been visiting for many years – Zizi the local bar owner, and Julien, who makes wine and olive oil. Both are Marseille fanatics. France does not have the range of clubs that we do, so their fan base stretches for miles and miles, and these two have been making the journey to the Velodrome stadium all their lives. To say Zizi was excited when I asked if he wanted to come to the game as Barton’s guest, and then have dinner in the players’ lounge, is an understatement. I know a lot of people in football, especially managers, and sometimes it is possible to forget and also to underestimate just how much something like that can mean to someone who has followed a club all their lives.
‘I said to my wife this morning this is the best day since our marriage,’ said Julien on the drive down. We had a bouillabaisse lunch a few miles out of the town, got to the ground early, collected our tickets and passes for ‘le salon du President’, and headed in. The free food and drink, the memorabilia on the walls, all helped make the day for my French friends. The 94th minute winner didn’t half help too, just when it looked like it was going to be a fairly forgettable 0 0 draw.
But it was the after match experience that really made it special, and all that was down to one of football’s favourite bad boys. Zizi, who has grown up kids of his own, had the look of a child who realises that Santa has after all delivered what he asked for. As the players started to drift through from the dressing rooms along the corridor, he was initially too shy just to go up and start talking to them. But once I introduced him to Barton, who incidentally had been one of the two best players on the pitch (the other being Valbuena), the Englishman made sure my French friend met all the players he wanted to, not least to tell them how desperate he was for them to beat PSG in their next match.
We had dinner, during which we discussed football, politics, culture, social media, diet, language (yes he does still speak English with a French accent when he is talking to foreigners), and he had some wonderful and unprintable stories about Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes among others. Zizi, who speaks no English at all, ate and drank away, constantly telling me this was like living a dream as player after player, and the club president, came over to talk to us.
We were the last to leave, and then some, because as we got up to go, Barton asked Zizi and Julien if they wanted to see the dressing rooms. More kids on Christmas Day looks. Zizi took a pee. ‘Je n’aurais jamais cru possible que je pisserais un jour ou Drogba l’avait fait.’ (I never believed it possible I would one day piss where Drogba used to). This was football joy of an intense level. He then sat alongside Barton and Julien and posed for photos in the dressing room seats, (think Bob Lord stand directors’ box in the white seat days) before Barton took them out onto the pitch and gave them a little tour of the ground.
Ok, the guy has a bad image and he is very skilfully using social media to change it. And maybe he thought that as someone who uses social media a fair bit too, I would say a few nice things about him. But the point is he didn’t have to do any of it, and he certainly didn’t have to push the boat out as far as he did for two working class guys from the village of Puymeras who honestly could not believe what was happening to them. They walked around the pitch. They messed around in the goalmouths. They took little bits of turf and stuck them in their pockets. And Julian admitted he would have to tell his wife it was actually better than their wedding day.
By the time we finally left, there were only two cars left in the car park. Ours, and Barton’s Land Rover. The match had ended hours ago. There was just a gaggle of Marseille fans waiting at the gate. We drove through them and headed north. Behind us, Barton stopped and got out to talk to them and pose for pictures.
He seems to be loving it out there. But in so many ways, he was not what I expected. And if ever he calls in at Zizi’s bar, not only will he see pictures of their day out plastered all over the place, but he certainly won’t have to pay for a drink.