Samir Nasri unavailable? Luka Modric too expensive? Wesley
Sneijder's wage demands too high?
The player Manchester United should sign to fill the Paul
Scholes-shaped hole in midfield is available on a free transfer.
Step forward Joseph Barton. Newcastle United's player of the
season and the best English midfielder in the Premier League (by his
estimation, at least).
Now I hardly need to go into great detail about Barton's
chequered past - let's just stick with the following aides-memoire: Cigar.
Brawl. Moon. Autobiography. Dabo. Etuhu. McDonald's. Prison. Shearer. Twitter.
What makes this latest twist so sad - Newcastle putting him up for a free transfer following criticism of the board - is how
unnecessary it all is.
Since Barton stopped drinking after coming out of prison, his behaviour has improved markedly.
He has largely managed to keep a lid on his anger (not completely, Morten Gamst
Pedersen would remind us), and his Twitter account has shown him to be a
thoughtful, multidimensional character - albeit one with a sixth-former's passion
for The Smiths and Nietzsche.
Most importantly, he believes in passing the ball, and is playing
the best football of his career.
One Tweet in particular was telling during England's
dispiriting Euro U21 campaign.
meltdown part 23 #whenwillwelearn #itsaballnotabomb #headsmustroll"
If you can possibly imagine a universe in which Scholes
tweeted, isn't that exactly the kind of thing he would write?
But Paul Scholes Barton isn't. He likes to talk. A lot. So isn't he more trouble than he is worth?
Well, if you sign him for nothing, it's not much of a risk -
you can just let him go if things don't work out.
Also, what exactly is wrong with an attitude that exudes
self-belief and a desire to see his team perform as well as possible?
Take the controversial interview given to French magazine So
Foot, in which he claimed he was the best English midfielder.
Barton said: "Honestly, I think I'm the best.
"In terms of English players...
well, Jack Wilshere isn't bad, but Frank Lampard's on the way down
and Steven Gerrard's been injured a lot."
There can surely be no serious argument against his comments
about Lampard and Gerrard, while his criticism of Gareth Barry ("He's like
the guy who sits in the front row and listens to the teacher.") was simply
might be, but don't we want players who believe in themselves? Hasn't England's
lack of conviction that they can pass the ball as well as, if not better than,
their opponents been a major factor in their woes?
In any case, top sides have a knack of keeping players happy
- as a result of, say, not promising major signings and failing to deliver.
Alex Ferguson managed to bring Eric Cantona's fierce temper
largely under control, and did a masterful job of managing the situation when
it flared up.
You will very rarely find an ex-Manchester United player
with a bad word to say about the club. That's because they look after them.
Even Carlos Tevez, when he was bitching about a new contract
and riding the bench at Old Trafford, didn't actually slag the club off until
right at the bitter end.
The phenomenon is not restricted to Old Trafford. Look at
Nicolas Anelka's transformation at Chelsea from 'Le Sulk' into a model pro who happily
plays out of position.
You might put it down to increased maturity - but look what
happened when Anelka and comic mismanagement were reunited at the World Cup. He
turned on Raymond Domenech at half-time against Mexico, and was kicked out of
We can add to that United's Patrice Evra, who captained
France in South Africa and led a player mutiny after Anelka was sent home.
Evra has a temper on him, as shown in the set-to he had with
a Chelsea groundsman in 2009, but has he ever been anything less than
professional at United? Of course not.
United and Chelsea look after their players. Some would say
they are overprotected - see the aftermath (or lack of it) of the Ashley Cole
airgun incident - but the footballers themselves feel comfortable and
Incidentally, this works in other sports - look at how the Chicago
Bulls' Phil Jackson got the best from Dennis Rodman, or the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick from Randy
Moss. Good managers know how to deal with players, full stop.
I am certain Barton would behave himself if he got the
chance of a lifetime at Old Trafford, and United would get the feisty, dynamic
and technically accomplished midfielder they so desperately crave.
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