There’s no doubt about it. When fans come to compile their lists of worst signings from the 2016/17 Scottish football season, Joey Barton will be number one. He might even be the worst signing Rangers have made in recent years. Considering some of the crimes committed by Ally McCoist during “The Journey”, that is no mean feat.
Everything about the deal ended up being regrettable from a Rangers point of view. Not only was production on the park below standard, though admittedly not terrible, he was a complete sideshow off it. After undermining the manager in front of the dressing room, he then undermined the club by taking to Twitter and then Talksport just hours after his suspension was announced. Then there were the allegations and subsequent SFA charge for betting offences, an added layer of controversy amid the ongoing suspension. For weeks manager Mark Warburton couldn’t take a press conference without being asked about his controversial summer signing. If it didn’t dominate the forefront of Rangers news, it hung around in the background. It was the type of distraction the club definitely didn’t need in its first season back in the top flight.
For years to come, observers will question Barton’s decision to reject the chance at English Premier League football to come sign for Rangers. The simple explanation is he did it for the glory. Or, if you want to be cynical, he did it to boost his ego. Had he stayed at Burnley, he’d be on a side battling valiantly to remain in the cut-throat world of the EPL. Occasionally there would be a famous victory, as the Clarets secured against Liverpool earlier this season, but for the most part they’d be torn apart by the likes of Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa. Where’s the fun in that? Especially for someone like Barton, who’s been there, done that and swapped his fair share of shirts.
Rangers (and Celtic) represent a unique temptation for footballers who are so inclined. They are massive clubs playing without a massive TV deal. It gives the opportunity for middle of the road talents - lower EPL, higher Championship quality players - to go and make themselves heroes. Just look at Scott Sinclair. He was all set to pass by Barton on his way down the football league structure. Instead, he’s a hero to 60,000 people every second week. For a soon-to-be 34-year old, it was a way to make himself adored by tens of thousands, who, it should also be pointed out, would have added to the potential customer base for his upcoming autobiography.
It seems Barton misjudged the ease in which he’d be able to come to Scotland and impose himself. It’s a fatal mistake many ageing stars from south of the border have perpetrated. We know what they think of us down there. The Scottish Premiership is a “pub league”. Surely someone of Barton’s talent could merely show up, be paid a decent wage, and be king of the land. He certainly wasted little time in shooting his mouth off and denouncing natural rival, Celtic skipper Scott Brown, as beneath him.
It immediately became apparent things weren’t going to be so easy. Rangers drew their opening league game at home to Hamilton, a side expected to be among one of the weakest in the league. It now seems in retrospect that, instead of rallying his side as they slogged through the opening weeks, Barton became resentful of what he perceived to be weaker team-mates holding back his dream of being a God-like figure to the Ibrox faithful. At least, that’s the version of events most likely to have occurred, if we’re to believe the root cause of the player’s row with manager Mark Warburton, which ultimately destroyed his career in Scotland, came as a result of an argument with Andy Halliday. The boyhood Rangers fan and popular midfielder was supposed to have, not incorrectly, pointed out that Barton had hardly shown himself to be worthy of the hype when the veteran chastised his fellow players for their poor performance in the wake of the 5-1 defeat to Celtic.
Rangers have to take their portion of the blame, too. His chequered past and advancing age, not to mention the intensified media interest a divisive and outspoken personality would bring, made this a potential powderkeg from the off. Similar to the player himself, the move appealed to their ego. Rangers were back among the big time, and nothing said that more than luring a big name talent away from an English Premier League side. He never fitted into the style of play Warburton remains so committed to and, as a result, with all the baggage he brought with him, it was a gamble doomed from the start.