After his successful “Walk to Lille” for charity, Andrew Gibney ended the journey with the promise of watching Lille OSC take on Olympique de Marseille at the Grand Stade Lille Metropole, to end an epic 10 days with a bang. What he didn’t plan on was to be sitting, on the morning of the game, in the Marseille team hotel waiting to speak one-on-one with l’OM midfielder Joey Barton.
On the way back from seeing Belgian side KV Kortrijk, sitting in the back of a car travelling towards Lille, a twitter exchange with Joey Barton quickly set up a meeting at the Marseille team hotel for Sunday morning. With my trusted cameraman Scott Johnston on board, we headed out early on Sunday and jumped on the tram from Lille’s city centre, not 100% convinced we were going to the right hotel, and not quite sure what to expect when we got there.
Quickly we knew we had the right place. A handful of Marseille fans were crowded outside, shirts, cameras and pens at the ready, here to see their heroes. We casually walked inside the hotel, with no team colours on, we waltzed straight in and took a seat. Getting there early gave us a chance to suss out what was going on, and then shortly after 11 o’clock, as good as his word, Joey Barton walked into the lobby, said a quick hello and we were looking for a quiet room to have a chat. The obvious choice was the same room in which the players would later be briefed on the tactics that would see them win a point at Lille.
Introductions out of the way, Scott started setting up his camera and we were casually chatting football. Nothing prepared us for how open, honest, welcoming and accepting Joey would be. Scott, being Scott, made this known to Joey…“before meeting you, I didn’t like you, but I know for a fact if you played for my team I would have loved you.” This was clearly not the first time someone had said this to Barton – “It’s weird… Even when I signed for Marseille what they expect to turn up, and the person they expect to turn up…but I can’t go round meeting everyone, I can’t go round having a conversation with everyone, it’s impossible! So I came to the conclusion that there’s always going to be someone that doesn’t like you, so just be yourself, and the people you met will know who you are.”
This was clearly not going to be a normal sit-down question-and-answer interview, but luckily we were already recording and the subject changed to the relationship with referees in France.
What have I had in France this year, three bookings and a sending off? Which even if I was being biased, is one of the harshest sendings off I’ve seen this season. The first lad [Muratori, for Nancy] had stopped, the second one [on Bakar] was a yellow card … As mad as it seems I actually think that worked out in my favour. Because as Elie (Baup) said, it got it out the way.
I’ve had a really great relationship with the referees. Because I respect them, I understand it’s not England and that certain decisions will be given here that maybe won’t in England, and also you try and speak with them. They are a lot more open – I don’t want to be critical of the English referees because I think they’re really really good, but…the French referees have a lot more strength in the conviction of the decision, so they say ‘I’m going to give this decision and I don’t care what’s written in the paper about me the next day’. Almost to the point where, as a Federation and a refereeing association, they want that criticism because they’re like ‘we’re the boss… this is the decision and that’s it’….In England you only have to be a football fan and watch certain games, and you see a decision that’s given at Old Trafford that’s not necessarily given elsewhere and you wonder to yourself ‘why?’. It has to be a media or a pressure within there that’s not in a normal football ground. And now they’re doing a thing, if a referee makes a decision, they stand him down for two games. What kind of message is that sending to your referees? … All of a sudden, you’re going to stop making decisions, you’re not empowering the people that you should be. It’s a strange time for English football.
Trying to get some sort of order to the interview I managed to ask the first question. It was meant to be an easy way to ease into it. It wasn’t needed as Joey was being as open and honest as ever, but thought I’d ask it anyway.
AG: We’re here in Marseille’s team hotel in Lille. Who is your roommate at Marseille?
JB: We don’t have roommates, everyone rooms alone. At QPR Jamie Mackie and I roomed together but it’s rooms alone here. Life on the road.
What are your overall thoughts on Ligue 1?
It’s stronger than what I thought heading in, people sort of think there is a lack of quality, certainly the English think there is a lack of quality anywhere outside the Premier League.
I think in this league when you watch games on the TV they’re not the Premier League end to end games. But there is an element to it, there’s a tactical organisation and there’s a discipline within the structure of certain teams that we don’t have so much in England. France doesn’t have that gung-ho approach.
Sometimes it’s about not losing games, and it can be frustrating for the fans to watch because there’s not an abundance of attacking play, but that’s what you’re dealt with, and as a footballer you have to adjust accordingly, and as a football man you learn an awful lot about a different game and a different culture.
As worthwhile an experience as it’s been for me as a player, as a football fan it’s certainly broadened my horizons to different styles and different genres of football.
Are there big differences either tactically or with the coaching styles between Ligue 1 and the Premier League?
Yeah, definitely! There’s a big difference in everything really, certainly in Marseille. I don’t know whether we’re cut off from the rest of the world because they say the south of France is slower than the rest of France even, it’s quite a laidback region. The coaching aspect is different, the way the players prepare for games, the way the players prepare for training is different from what we do in England. I’m still up in the air about which is better, and sometimes I find myself doing things and think, should I actually be doing this? This is what I’d do in England, but is this necessarily applicable to what I’m doing right now in France?
If I was to go into coaching or management after I’ve finished playing, it would certainly give me a different dimension, the fact that I’ve actually been a foreign player in a foreign country and know the pitfalls that would befit that situation, gives me an awful lot of insight into what it would take for a player to do that.
How have you found your coach Elie Baup?
He’s a great guy, a really really good man. He doesn’t say much but when he says it, he either says it quite sternly and quite strictly, or in quite a jovial manner. He’s a real character, all the lads really like him, got a lot of respect for him. We also know that he can be really tough if he needs to be, but he’s from a region in France (Saint-Gaudens) which is close to the Pyrenees and he has his own way of doing things, and he’s from quite a working-stock family.
I get on with him really well; a lot of stuff in the early part was lost in translation, to the point where they used to just call me “English”. Steve Mandanda still calls me it now. As my French has improved I’ve been able to communicate a bit more, I’ve been quite fortunate that Franck Passi is here, and he played in England under Big Sam (Allardyce) at Bolton and speaks decent English, so with him being the assistant it made my communication and me understanding what was going on in the team really easy. That was a blessing in disguise, and that made my transition into Marseille a lot easier than it may have been elsewhere.
Is there anyone in the Premier League you would liken Elie Baup to?
No. He’s a one-off. There’s no one really, no one I’ve encountered like him. He’s a real character – if he spoke English he’d be someone the English football fans would really like. He’s got that passion for football, and also that aloof kind of character to engage the English media. He’s a character and I’m all for characters within the game.
What did you think of the match versus Lille at the Velodrome [game 14, in which Balmont was sent off for Lille]?
When you see a team go down to ten men, there’s a different mindset, and a different approach, almost like ‘let’s try to hang on to what we’ve got’, and I can’t blame Lille for doing that, that’s what they felt their best chance of getting a result was. I think the Lille we face today and the Lille we faced then are two totally different sides. They didn’t start the season well, and got a few bad results in Europe, and the confidence was drained out of them, and since the Christmas period turned, certainly in the last few months, they’ve started stringing results together and confidence has grown, which culminates in absolutely tonking Lorient last week 5-0, and Lorient have had a decent season themselves. So, what we head into today, certainly at their stadium, which I’m looking forward to seeing, because it looks great on the TV and was one of the better pitches for the early part of the season even though it seems to have gone a little bit now – so I’m really looking forward to it. As a professional footballer, as someone who’s dedicated his whole life to playing football, this is what it’s about – playing against top teams.
I catch myself now, thinking how many English players can say ‘I’ve been involved in this kind of game for a club outside of England?’ There’s not many of us about – it was a strange set of circumstances how I ended up in Marseille but I’m in a really fortunate position, it’s only whetted my appetite for European football, because I was of the English mindset of ‘we’re the best, our league’s the best, we don’t need to see anything else’.
Maybe there is something to be learned – I’m 30 years of age now, I don’t envisage myself retiring until 36, 38. I’ve never had pace, so I’m not scared about my legs going, because I’ve never had them (laughs). You start thinking about what’s after – I’m highly critical of certain things within football, whether it be the level of coaching, or the level of the national team, and you end up getting to the point where you say, hang on, I’m saying that’s wrong, that’s wrong – I have to turn round and say if that’s wrong, how do you fix it? I’ve tried to check myself from saying everything that’s wrong, and think “don’t just say it’s wrong, don’t be critical, try to come up with a solution, and say there’s actually a different way of doing it”.
So I’m in the process now of trying to learn, I’m doing my coaching badges in the summer, and trying to get a different side of the game, because football as a game has given me an awful lot. I know everyone will think that’s in terms of financial reward, but it’s not; it’s in terms of giving me confidence to become the man that I am today. It’s not been a straightforward path, as anyone who knows anything about me will know, it’s been quite helter-skelter – probably not the way I’d have planned if I had the chance. But for whatever reason I’m sitting here with a fantastic opportunity today – playing for a massive football club in Europe and really enjoying it, and looking forward to what I can give back. Football has given me and my family an awful lot of great times and great experiences, and it would be selfish of me to take them and retire and go and play golf. I think it’s important that players who are passionate about the game give back, because that’s one of the few criticisms I have of the modern game, that it’s just ‘take take take’ – and no-one ever thinks, if we all just keep taking, at the end there’ll be nothing left. We have to put something back in for the future, or there’ll be nothing left for the kids now who are watching us play football.
I think that it’s becoming a father this year; it mellows you a little bit, you start thinking about what will be left for him, for his generation. So it gives you something that’s bigger than yourself, which for a long time I didn’t have; it was always about me and what I wanted, and suddenly you become more socially aware, and you become a lot more aware of your circumstances, and you think ‘what is it I stand for and what am I going to leave?’. So without going on and breaking down in tears and doing a Piers Morgan ‘life story’ kind of thing (laughs), you just think ‘this is bigger than me’, and you have to take your own selfishness out of it.
… I’ve always spoken from the heart, I think that’s why people follow me on Twitter, I’m one of the few that has no regard, sometimes to my own detriment, to tell the truth, but that’s me. I always speak from the heart, and it’s not as important as some people make out – for some people it’s life and death, and it’s not that serious. It’s football, and we love it, and I’m someone who’s dedicated my life to it – we’re football fans, I’m a football fan, I just play. I’m the lucky one, I get to play. It’s a game that once bitten by it, it’s difficult to get away from.
Since your time here in France, who outside of Marseille has impressed you?
(Romain) Alessandrini, he’s really good, suffered a bad injury, which is disappointing for him, certainly in the game I saw at the Velodrome and the game I played at Rennes, he was very good.
I like the left winger at Toulouse, Franck Tabanou, really good left-foot. Really impressed by them. Then the players at the big clubs; (Maxime) Gonalons, (Blaise) Matuidi, they’ve done really well, and I always watch them because they’re in the same position as me.
And at our place it’s been really good to see Gignac have a great season, and to see (Mathieu) Valbuena, he’s turned out to be the star for the French national team. He’s been fantastic for France, it’s been good to see that close hand, knowing them as lads, and seeing them every day, it’s a real privilege to play with some top players.
Has there been anyone at Marseille that has surprised you, good or bad?
Certainly Rod Fanni. I didn’t know much about Rod before I came, as we don’t hear much about certain positions, we hear about the goal scorers, or the goal makers, I didn’t know much about Rod. He’s turned out to be a fantastic player; he’s got everything you need to be a modern day fullback; he attacks quite well, he’s comfortable on the ball, he’s good defensively, he’s quick, and he’s a great lad, for me he’s been a real surprise.
And also Steve Mandanda, I’d seen Steve from afar, I knew he was a good goalkeeper, I just didn’t realise how good. Sometimes you have to play with people to realise, or certainly play against them to realise their strengths.
I think France are fortunate they’ve got Hugo Lloris and Steve, because for me it’s quite close, two top quality keepers, Lloris is a very good goalkeeper, and I know I’m biased a little bit, but I’d certainly put Steve right up there.
He’s a great footballer as well. Sometimes after games he joins in with us in outfield games and he does really well, more than holds his own. As a modern-day goalkeeper you’ve got to be a footballer – once that backpass rule went out, it killed a few goalkeepers. But it’s also brought in a new age for goalkeepers, a new era. Steve does that for us, you know you can always play the ball back to him, he’s comfortable on the ball and his distribution’s really good. For a modern-day goalkeeper, he has everything, and we’re very fortunate to have him at Marseille.
What about your own form. How have you found playing in the deeper role at Marseille?
It came about due to tactics that they play in France, the coach and the assistant coach here like to play with two holding midfielders. They don’t like you getting in the box. In England it’s demanded of you that you can do both. Matuidi is a real box-to-box midfielder. The football culture is different; they’ve always had that sort of water-carrier, Didier Deschamps being the prime example. Look at the national team now, and they’ll play a holder, whether it be Gonalons, Yohan Cabaye, Matuidi sometimes will sit, Capoue has played there. They always have one. Most of the teams in the league will have a sitter.
We’ve got Alexyis (Romao) who’s been doing that job for us, and that’s the culture. Certainly when I came at first, the first few times I remember bombing on in training sessions, and it was like “what are you doing?” I was like, “I’m getting in the box, the ball’s gone wide!” ” “…that’s not what we do. Not here, you have to sit back in.”
It ended up being like that, and I’ve always liked tackling, I’ve always been a decent tackler, I’ve had to adjust my game accordingly, if I’d come and gone box-to-box I wouldn’t have been playing much football here, that’s not what the coach wanted, he wanted someone to sit in, have a little bit of discipline and dictate that position to the team.
In the last couple of games, I’ve sat on the bench – but I’ve been able to sit and watch the functionality of the team, in terms of what that position brings, because Alexyis and Benny [Cheyrou] have been playing, and we’ve won both games. So to be able to watch football from the side sometimes gives you a different approach, because when you’re playing you get caught up in the playing and the actual result, and you forget the technical aspect of it. You’re just consumed with winning the game, or getting the required result. When you sit at the side, you can understand why we do that, you get to see it from the coaches’ side, why the team plays in that way.
The only thing I’m disappointed with is that I’ve not scored enough goals; it’s not for the want of trying. I should have scored in the away leg at Monchengladbach, it would have been in but Jordan (Ayew) decided to stick his head in the way (laughs). There’s been a few close shots. But when you have players like Valbuena, Gignac, Andre Ayew in the side, my job is to get the ball and give it to them. They’re fantastic players, they can win a game at the drop of a hat. Football is a simple game, there’s no point in me complicating it. I’m never going to do four or five stepovers and run past anyone, I’ve never done it in my life so I’m not going to start now.
It’s a case of playing to your strengths and my strengths are ball recuperation and passing forward early. I’ve come into this team, I’ve come into a side that’s winning, a really good side, there’s no point me getting in and saying I want to do my little bit and wanting to have a shot now; if the opportunity arises I’ll have a crack at goal. But you have to adapt to the surroundings, when there are players of the calibre that I’m playing with, just get them on the ball. Let them showcase what they can do.
You have to take what you want to do out of it. This is what it’s about, it’s about the team, it’s about the club, that’s where the staff, in terms of the coaching and Franck, all season long, win, lose, draw, that’s been the focus, the team. The team comes first; it’s all about the team. I think the fact we’ve got 36 goals and 32 against and yet we’re sitting with 57 points (before the Lille game) is a testament to the character of the team. We’ve gone places and we’ve dug results out. And in England that’s looked at and it’s a real sign of character, a real sign of a team together. In France it’s almost “they’re not playing great football, yeah Marseille are winning but they’re not doing it with aplomb”. If we were doing what we’re doing in England, it’s almost like to win 1-0 in England is the best score, it’s a real testament of your character. In France it’s like you’re just sneaking this. The league table doesn’t lie. It’s reflective of where you are.
There are some good sides in France, Toulouse are a really good side, Montpellier another really good side, sitting mid-table, and then when you look at Saint-Etienne, I keep thinking “they’re not much to look at”, but they are a team that’s together, they’re a team that plays for each other, they obviously believe in the ideals of the coach and they work their b****cks off and it’s reflected in their league position. And we’ve been looking over our shoulders at them and Nice for a long period.
They’ve had a fantastic season, when you look at the budget they’re on and you look at the players, not many in England will know Saint-Etienne players apart from (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang because he’s been linked with English clubs, but they could be playing Champions League football next year. What financially that means to that football club is incredible, it’s not long ago they were down in Ligue 2. It’s a testament to them as a football club, sometimes performances can get in the way of what’s actually happening.
When you speak to anyone here at Marseille, the goal for us is Champions League football. Once the stadium’s redeveloped it’s an arena befitting only of Champions League football. I think it’ll be as good a stadium as you’ll see in Europe.
Do you think Champions League football would convince you to stay?
I don’t need any convincing. For me, I’m more than happy to stay here. I envisage myself playing for another 6-8 years, I won’t retire, they’ll have to carry me off the pitch.
When I sit and look at what you need to play, I’m a midfielder who could probably drop a little further back. I still think I can play centre-half. I play centre-half sometimes in training, me and (Nicolas) Nkoulou do alright. I’m quite confident I can play there, just because I read the game quite well. I’m better in the air, which I think people have realised in France, than they usually give me credit for, to the point where I’m marking some big old units at set-pieces. I just say, he’s bigger than me but I’ll find a way.
As a football player I don’t want to play for any other football club. For Marseille, for me to stay here. It suits everyone – it suits me, the fans love me, and I love them. I think they see that you care.
At this point Joey was already late for the team walk at 12 noon, a quick picture and goodbye and he was off.
During the interview we met assistant coach Franck Passi, and the Marseille President Vincent Labrune also made an appearance, Joey quick to tell them what we do. You could see he has an excellent relationship with the backroom staff and Labrune himself, calling him “Pres!” as he walked in. There was also a brief hello to the excellent Mathieu Valbuena, but he had no idea what was going on.
Joey offered us the chance to talk after the team walk, but we’d taken up enough of his time, the 30 minutes offered had turned into over an hour and we thanked Joey for his time and watched him run off to join his teammates.
On his way out he mentioned he would have tried to sort us out with tickets, but knew it was sold out as some of the Marseille players had failed to get them for friends already. Luckily I managed to secure a ticket outside the ground and once again watched my beloved Lille not win, but dominate the visitors for most of the game. Joey would play the last 13 minutes without really having a chance to impose himself.
Results last weekend mean Marseille are four points clear of Saint-Etienne in fourth, but only two points clear of Lyon in third. From talking to Joey it looks like he wants to stay in France for the foreseeable future. Securing 2nd place and Champions League football will give all parties a greater chance for this to happen.
We thank Joey for his time, and his openness. We wish him all the luck for the rest of the season.