Barton spent 77 days in the infamous Manchester prison across the summer of 2008 following an assault in Liverpool city centre the previous Christmas. He was given a six-month sentence after being captured on CCTV punching a youth 20 times. “People say that [they have an epiphany] when the cell door closes. It wasn’t that [for me],” the 33-year-old said. “I remember sitting in the dressing room at Newcastle and I was on bail but, basically, knowing that at the end of the season I was going away.
“I was actually playing decent football regardless of all the mental stuff that was going on around it. The lads were all sitting talking about two weeks out from the end of the season about Dubai, Spain, America. And I was thinking: I’m going to f***ing Strangeways. The reality of that dawns upon you. F***ing hell. That’s when you talk about epiphanies. How did it come to this? What are you doing? I wasn’t enjoying life. I wasn’t enjoying football. I thought ‘this has got to change’. Either you’ve got to give it up and walk away or you’ve got to do some serious work and have a look at this. You just find a process. Some people find it at 18. Some people never find it. I’m just lucky that I found it when I found it in terms of being able to salvage some great years and some really happy memories over the last few years.
“Going to France and being successful in a foreign country [with Marseilles] which not many British players do. Having a legacy there in terms of a great relationship with the foreign football, they appreciated my style of football. Coming back and helping QPR getting back to the Premier League which probably saved the club from financial Armageddon. Being part of an incredible journey with Burnley [to help them win the Championship last year] which, for a town club of their size, was phenomenal. Now coming here and hopefully bolting on a legacy here, because how can you not…?”
Barton deserves to be remembered for the latter career rehabilitation because within that he has become a captivating football philosopher and social media savant, the latter ensuring he has more than three million followers on Twitter, wherein he is given so much grief you wonder why he bothers.
“If you look at the way I use Twitter now it’s completely different to how I used it two years ago. It was new technology then and you were kind of playing around the edges of it. You work out where it can and can’t work for you. I believe strongly in myself and I believe we all should. There are enough people who are quick to put you down in life so for myself it’s important to be incredibly positive about who you are.”
Barton is incredibly positive about the need for self reflection. His musings on how much more he could have achieved if he had understood as an emerging talent at Manchester City what he does now perfect illustrated the ocean into which he happily plunges with his thoughts.
“Ask that to anyone – we’re all the same,” the midfielder said. “The honest answer is that when you are 17 and on a YTS and straight into professional football you’re like Peter Pan. As long as you are playing good football no one really cares how you behave and conduct yourself.
“That’s the nature of football up to a level and it’s not unique to any one football club.
“You get away with a lot of stuff. No one ever tells you that you are acting like a knobhead. You have to work that out.
“You go into a pay grade where people who would put you in your place feel that they can’t. You might earn more than your dad ever did and he feels he can’t intervene. No one ever gives you a blueprint on how to behave. Certainly they didn’t for me and the other question is: would I have listened? You never grow up and you get away with stupid stuff and it just gets worse and worse and worse. Eventually it comes to a head and you have to grow up.”
Barton has grown up early enough to enjoy an exhilarating autumn within his career, but too late to add to the one cap the accomplished midfielder earned nine years ago. “That will be something I will regret when I stop playing,” he said. “If I had my processes in place you’d like to think that you’d have got more caps.
“There are players who I think I’m better than who have more caps. Then again, there are guys who are infinitely better than me who never got any caps. You have to look at the pros and cons. I’ve had a really good career and I’m still in a great place. I’ve been incredibly fortunate with injuries and everything that comes with it and also I’ve been incredibly fortunate at times when I’ve been a dickhead and people have still given me a chance. It would have been easy for a lot of people to turn their back on me.”