Look back at the greatest period in Marseille’s history in the early 1990s and, for all the flair provided by the likes of Jean-Pierre Papin, Abedi Pele, Chris Waddle and Alen Boksic, there were some pretty tough buggers at the back. The likes of Carlos Mozer, Eric di Meco, Bernard Casoni, Basile Boli and even a young Marcel Desailly, then playing at full-back: these guys took no prisoners.
That, in part, is why news of a potential loan deal that would see Joey Barton leave QPR for a season at the French club has been welcomed with delight by Marseille fans. They love a fighter at Marseille. With Stephane M’Bia reported to be close to joining QPR in a permanent deal for €6m (a bargain price for a top player, one not so long ago on Manchester United’s radar and, a few years back, only failing to move to Everton because of a difference in valuation), the team needs a ball-winner, someone to get stuck in. Barton fits that bill.
There are other reasons why this move could work out. They may be different players, but don’t under-estimate the impact that Waddle had at the southern French club; he is still treated as a hero there, fans go misty-eyed at the memory of his volleyed goal against AC Milan in 1991, one of the many highlights of his three seasons there.
Marseille fans have loved English footballers ever since, a feeling that still exists, really, throughout France. The French look on English football, with its characters, its passion and its goals, with envy. Just as Joe Cole moving to Lille last season was seen as a huge boost for Ligue 1, so would Barton’s move to France, even though they are different players and, given the 12-match ban Barton is currently serving in England, different circumstances. As Darren Tulett, presenter of Ligue 1’s coverage on leading rights broadcaster BeInSport put it: “Marseille fans love a character and will be able to overlook the nastier elements of Barton’s past and instead appreciate his aura as a bad-boy.”
And what of that past? Well, Marseille’s local press have already gone through his rap-sheet (mentioning the Ousmane Dabo assault, the prison sentence, the punch on Morten Gamst Pedersen and the end-of-season tantrum at Manchester City) but did so with some pride. Local paper La Provence wrote: “His excesses make you forget that he is one of England’s best midfielders, in the tradition of box-to-box players, capable of winning the ball, controlling the play, and scoring like Lampard and Gerrard. ‘Joe’ is a true rock star… and he dreams of restoring his tarnished image.”
It’s also worth remembering that Barton’s most open interview actually appeared in a French publication, So Foot. Barton spoke because “in France they haven’t heard my side of the story”, going on to call Dabo “a little pussy”, and claiming that Dabo had hit him first. He did accept that he should never have got involved, and went on to explain the reasons for his drinking problems, what he learnt during his time in prison, and outlined his desire to be a coach in future. Oh, and he also said he was England’s best midfielder.
There will, no doubt, be some French players keen to make a point to Barton as some kind of belated retribution for the Dabo affair. Soon after it happened, Dabo’s best friend Mikael Silvestre rejected a move to Newcastle because Barton was in the squad. Barton was not impressed. “For me, if you don’t like someone, you have to say it face to face, ‘No, I don’t like you,’” he told So Foot.
Dabo remains a popular figure in the French game, and has worked as an occasional guest pundit for BeInSport. You can’t help wondering if Barton sees this move as a redemptive one: it seems unlikely he would go through the whole season without seeing or coming into contact with Dabo at some point.
Barton, though, is not the only one trying to overcome a tarnished image. Marseille, champions as recently as 2010, needs some positive attention as owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, who threatened to sell the club last season, has pulled the plug financially and insisted that no players can come in unless some are sold. Marseille are paying for the excesses of the past, chiefly the purchases of Lucho Gonzalez (€24m) and Andre-Pierre Gignac (€18m) and their decision to reject the €20m that Tottenham bid last January for striker Loic Remy. Marseille would take €15m for him if offered that today.
Marseille president Vincent Labrune and sports director Jose Anigo have this week been in London to thrash out some deals: the sale of Spanish full-back Cesar Azpilicueta to Chelsea for around €8m, M’Bia’s move to QPR, while Jordan Ayew has been linked with a €4m move to Reading. All this while Marseille sit top of the table after wins over Sochaux and Reims.
Barton might also find a kindred spirit in coach Elie Baup, who played down reports of Barton’s arrivals by insisting that recruitment was down to Anigo and Labrune (something that his predecessor Didier Deschamps struggled to accept).
Baup has had some legal troubles of his own: after leaving his last coaching job, at Nantes, in 2009, he worked as a pundit for Canal Plus while allegedly claiming unemployment benefit. “Taken into custody? It can happen to the best of us!” he laughed at a press conference last week. Barton to Marseille may look like a strange move, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.