Tuesday 28 February 2017

Aidan O'Hara: Joey Barton: The perfect modern sportsman

The next time there are kids in the park playing football with jumpers for goalposts, watch what happens when a shot goes in the air above one of the garments.

The child who took the shot will claim it's a goal and the goalkeeper will insist that it hit the imaginary post and, therefore, it's not a goal. One will know that they are more likely lying than telling the truth but, if they stick to their guns, there may be a verbal argument, a physical one or whoever owns the ball may take it up and go home.

When they arrive at the house they might be quizzed by a parent as to what went on and the child who did the lying knows that the truth could see them grounded.

The truly clever ones will blame it on Joey Barton and escape without censure.

There are few things that people like better than an easy target and, although he provides plenty of bullets for the firing squad, Barton is already the Premier League's persona non grata after just two days of the season.

His fall after being slapped by Gervinho on Saturday was dramatic, as was his reaction to Alex Song standing rather than stamping on his calf, but in both instances he was the one on the receiving end.

Alan Pardew's defence that he was "incensed by an opponent attempting to con the referee" might hold a little more weight if Barton's reaction wasn't then to attempt to con the referee.

Morally, what Barton did probably wasn't right but if people want morals on a Saturday they should go to evening mass.

Every player who has played the game has cheated -- blatant or otherwise. When a ball goes out of play, both teams regularly appeal and, although one is obviously lying, nobody criticises them for trying to hoodwink the referee.

It's called gamesmanship or, to put it another way, acceptable cheating.

Under this category, it allows for the deliberate obstruction of opposition players from corners, which often brings praise as being a good training ground move -- meaning that the team have collectively practised cheating and getting away with it.

Pulling jerseys to stop this tactic, however, is a no-no.

Barton conning the referee into believing that he'd been punched -- he was so convincing that team-mate Steven Taylor thought he'd been elbowed --

isn't something to be encouraged, but the notion that he sums up everything that is wrong with football, sport or the world's economy is laughable.

In many ways, he's the perfect modern sportsman -- making the most of his talent, being overpaid for it, and having an opinion.

He's certainly overpaid for "only" kicking a ball around but, by comparison to the usual suspects of nurses, teachers etc, so is just about every elite athlete.

(Leonardo DiCaprio earned €54m last year for "only" learning his lines but he didn't have to deal with any moral outrage coming his way.)

warriors

Barton is a good player in an ordinary team but even to get to the level of playing nearly 200 Premier League games requires talent and dedication that is alien to many of the keyboard warriors who rain vitriol down on Barton on a daily basis.

Had a swear box been applied to Barton's Twitter feed on Saturday, there would have been enough money collected to bail out a few European countries.

People wanted to kill him, called him a p****, a c*** and a p**** on every second message (the second p**** is different to the first. Try to work it out).

Unlike many monosyllabic players, Barton had the conviction to respond to many of his critics online and, while some of the justification for his answers was debatable, he was at least prepared to stand over his actions rather than hide behind a 'talk to my agent' mantra.

Barton's off-pitch misdemeanours are plentiful but they don't cloud that, on Saturday, he did what every professional in every sport would have done: make it easier for his team to win.

In rugby, Richie McCaw is legendary for bending the rules to breaking point or, as it's euphemistically put, "playing on the edge" and, whisper it, the odd Irish player might even do the same.

Defenders in Gaelic football will tug at the shirt to prevent a forward's movement when the ball is 60 yards away, attackers will pull a player on top of them in what's seen as "drawing" a foul.

Few players will be admonished if a dishonestly won free leads to the winning score. In hurling, players sneakily grab each others hurls and, once they're not caught, it's not cheating.

In both sports, diving is unacceptable but punching somebody can be portrayed as manliness.

In cricket, bowlers appeal for lbw when, if they're honest, they know the batsman is not out; in revenge, a batsman can stand there when they've certainly edged the ball and it's only when the umpires decide they're out that they'll leave the field.

Barton is a long way from being unique in shifting responsibility to the referee to make the decision, but judging by the hugs and smiles that came at the end of the game, Arsenal players didn't seem too bothered by his actions.

They, like any other player, know that if they haven't already, one day they will do exactly the same thing.

Irish Independent

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