The inhabitants of your local Wetherspoons may not be prepared to acknowledge it, but football and politics have always mixed.
In 1934, Benito Mussolini used a fledgling competition called the World Cup to add a veneer of respectability to his fascist regime in Italy. The military dictatorship of Argentina and Vladimir Putin attempted the same thing in 1978 and 2018 respectively.
England didn’t participate in the first three World Cups, along with the other home nations, for fear that the international game was intruding on domestic football. In short, a political decision.
In recent years, we’ve had Marcus Rashford imploring the government to feed Britain’s school children and Tyrone Mings calling out Home Secretary Priti Patel for her criticism of taking the knee.
But what the modern generation of socially conscious England players doesn’t realise is they’re following in the footsteps of Joseph Anthony Barton.
Having established a reputation as one of the Premier League’s looser canons, Barton surprised everybody by attempting the kind of reinvention that’s normally the preserve of a teenager during their first months at university.
The midfielder began quoting Nietzsche, George Orwell and Morrisey like a karaoke Cantona, became an outspoken supporter of gay rights and declared that he would privatise religion if he became Prime Minster.
For football supporters, Barton’s mix of thinker and thug was quite something to behold.
What changed his mind, as he explained to The Guardian in 2012, was wanting to be seen as someone other than a monosyllabic Neanderthal who fights in city centres, drunk’.
“For a long, long time I’d been portrayed as a certain type of person by the media and, of course, with certain elements of my character, they totally give them the ammunition,” he said about behaviour that included stubbing a lit cigar out in a Manchester City youth player’s eye in 2004.
“But I also felt that they were coercing me into being something that I wasn’t, and maybe if I did 15 good things, they’d wait for the negative to say, ‘Oh hang on, look he actually does fit the stereotype, he is the token bad boy of English football…’
“And I just got pissed off with it, really. I started thinking about how you’d be remembered and what I wanted to stand for, or what people would actually say when I wasn’t in the room.”
Inevitably, Barton ended up appearing on Question Time, the BBC’s flagship political programme, in May 2014 as an increasingly divided Britain looked to non-traditional sources to answer its existential questions.
Sporting a polo shirt and the slicked-back hair of a Teddy Boy, the then-QPR midfielder didn’t help his cause by admitting he’d read a ‘Politics for Dummies’ book before going on air.
And, having been described as ‘football’s philosopher king’ by host David Dimbleby, Barton held court on a wide range of topics in front of a bemused studio audience.
The proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport was batted away with: “I live nearby, so I’m absolutely against it,” while Barton found time for a drive-by assassination of Nick Clegg’s credibility with the line “I’ve got more of a chance of winning an election than the Lib Dems.”
But his appearance is best remembered for an unfortunate lapse into dressing-room banter that instantly undermined his performance.
While discussing the rise of UKIP, who had just been successful in the European elections, Barton said: “If I’m somewhere and there were four really ugly girls, I’m thinking she’s not the worst – that’s all UKIP are,” to a backdrop of audience groans.
With the pinpoint accuracy of a jab into Sergio Aguero’s ribs, Barton had managed the seemingly impossible of making Piers Morgan, who was also on the panel, appear a learned and cosmopolitan gentleman in comparison.
“I do apologise – I couldn’t think of a better one, this is the first time I have ever done it [Question Time],” he said by way of apology.
“As [North West England UKIP MEP] Louise Bours rightly pointed out my brains are in my feet, which is an equally offensive statement. Maybe I was a little bit nervous, I apologise.”
His thought-provoking takes on the Chilcot Enquiry and tackling obesity were lost in a sea of mirth; Dimpelby made frequent jibes about Barton’s faux pas and one audience member directly called him out on his sexist remark.
Like his international career with England, Barton never made a second appearance on Question Time with producers settling for the hard-hitting incisiveness from the likes of Lee Anderson instead.
Most recently the manager of League One side Bristol Rovers, the former midfielder regularly peppered post-match interviews with philosophical musings.
But, given a priceless opportunity to complete his re-invention from thug to thinker, Barton took out a shotgun and blew his foot off.
Metaphorically, of course. But the impact was broadly similar.
By Michael Lee