When we think of Newcastle and that famous ‘Entertainers’ side of the mid-nineties under Kevin Keegan, the likes of Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley automatically spring to mind. It was a team rich in attacking talent, so committed to a high octane and energetic brand of football, that it’s easy to forget about the defenders who facilitated it, particularly when being a full-back wasn’t so fashionable as it is today.
“There was a time when full-backs were full-backs, they just defended and moved the ball on, but I was an athlete,” reflects Warren Barton, who spent the mid-nineties to early noughties marauding down the right flank at St. James’ Park.
“Kind of like how Trent and Robertson get forward, me and John Beresford were high, if not higher up the pitch than Keith Gillespie and David Ginola sometimes, and that was all part of the style of football we played.”
It was a thrilling golden era for the club, a far cry from the disconnect between owners and fans that has come to characterise the Mike Ashley era. Barton is proud to have been part of it, having arrived as the most expensive English defender in 1995 from Wimbledon’s ‘crazy gang’.
You can attribute many things to their success during that period, but one thing that perhaps are overlooked is the open training sessions that would take place down at Maiden Castle – where thousands of fans were welcomed in, hamburgers and coffees would be sold to spectators, and legends of the game shared facilities with the Durham students.
Barton laments that this sort of thing doesn’t happen today. He believes it was this interaction with fans and the wider community led to some ‘sensational’ football on the weekends, and was a key part of the feel-good atmosphere at the club. It externalised that sense of duty to give something back, deflating their celebrity status to a level of humanity and collective endeavour.
“I remember leaving Durham City centre where I used to live and drive down to Maiden Castle, and hundreds of cars were being parked and people walked along with their black and white shirts coming to watch us train.
“Sometimes we had to be careful with our language, there was kids there and it’s an industrial game, so we had to be a little bit conscious of what we were doing, but that’s what you want to play for, that’s the sign of being in a big club.
“Expectation from fans is what you want to have and that’s what I miss now, nothing mirrors that pressure. It could be nerve-racking and hard when you get a bad result, but have to take that on the chin.”
This connection is what Barton feels is missing these days, that sense of being accountable and ‘facing the music’. With social media it is so easy for players to switch off the phone and avoid responsibility, but Barton kept returning to the mantra that actions speak louder than words.
He believes that footballers should have that platform to meaningfully interact with fans because, as Marcus Rashford exemplifies, they aren’t all inherently ‘high and mighty’, and do have that urge to get involved in the community.
Despite having operated in such a brutal and unforgiving world, Warren is incredibly humane and aware of what it means to be a footballer. For him it was never about the money or the cars, but rather those days at Maiden Castle signing autographs, representing the people who idolised him and developing special relationships with the fans.
That’s partly why his biggest regret is not winning the league for them in 1996. He pins it down to an amalgamation of things, not least the exquisiteness of Cantona’s low-driven volley in that pivotal 1-0 defeat at St. James’ Park. He also puts it down to Keegan’s overzealousness, that pressure to entertain, as he recounts a particular February morning down at Maiden Castle when he ruminated with Peter Beardsley and Les Ferdinand over a cup of tea.
“We’d lost a couple of games and United had won, and I said to Les and Peter ‘do you think we need to change a little bit?’, and Pedro goes ‘he won’t, he won’t change’. Keegan would either win it his way or not at all, kind of like what Pep does.
“So maybe we didn’t have that winning mentality, but great credit to United. It kills me to say it because they ruined my life.“
Time went on after that bitter disappointment and Newcastle remain one of the best sides not to have won the Premier League. Barton saw iconic players depart, legendary managers hop on and off the managerial roundabout, and new players such as Aaron Hughes, the one who eventually inched Barton out of the squad, come through. He remained in the North East until 2002 before seeing out his playing days with a stint Dagenham & Redbridge three years later, satisfied with the three England caps under his belt and a successful on-field career.
And so a new era beckoned. After a brief spell doing media work at ITV and Sky in England, he headed off to sunny San Diego in 2008 with his family to begin a new adventure doing punditry at Fox Sports. He still enjoys being a pundit, but it is when talking about coaching that the lights behind his eyes truly begin to flicker. For him there’s nothing quite as fulfilling.
Through Brad Friedel he was able to get involved in several training camps, but his main coaching venture was his short spell at San Diego Flash, an amateur side that he funded himself. Though he decided to ‘cut it at a loss’ in 2012 it was a great learning curve for Barton, helping him to immerse himself in an American footballing culture which he believes is sharply on the rise today.
This is true of the MLS in particular, with money now being invested into academies and the South American leagues rather than over-relying on the Zlatans and the Gerrards. Stereotypes surrounding the league still exist, however, and he believes that people need to ‘do their homework’, arguing that ‘just because it’s different a different culture doesn’t mean it’s wrong.’
Barton is still able to maintain a deep-seated interest in the English game despite moving to warmer climes, particularly with Newcastle and their current situation under Steve Bruce and Mike Ashley.
“My problem is the style of football, it’s very conservative and we’ve got some talented, talented players, but the system that has been put up is to not lose the game. I know Steve and I’ve got a lot of respect for him, but I just want us to be more positive and adventurous and going forward. That’s how we can we get the best out of this team.
“I want my football club to mirror the people in the city, and it doesn’t. They’re not negative, they’re not dour people, they want to have fun, and they’re not having fun at the moment.”
That special connection with the North East will never go away, as he replays the sight of St. James’ Park in his mind – the ‘holy grail’ of a city where he plans to have his ashes sprinkled despite being born and bred in London.
Maiden Castle was central to shaping this fondness with the region: those training sessions with the fans, sharing the gym with the ‘Durham lads’, watching the Toon Army flock down in their droves, memories of rocking up to training in the snow with Tino Asprilla donning a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, while Kevin Keegan sat on the burger stall having a bacon sandwich while the team trained.
“Durham is a beautiful place. It was a very special time in a great part of the world, and a part of the world I call home. I spent seven or eight years in the north east and loved every moment of it.”
While Warren misses the lifestyle and culture of being a footballer intensely, he’s just glad to have been such a loyal servant to the club and the region – remembering the great players he met, the faces he brought smiles to, just happy to have entertained.
Image courtesy of Warren Barton