There was one thing I expected to write at the end of the season – and that was that to describe Joey Barton’s first year in management as a rollercoaster would be an understatement.
When Barton first arrived at Highbury, I was prepared for drama – but not to see Bobby Grant exiled as well as Kyle Dempsey and Conor McAleny turfed out on loan.
I could not have predicted a 5-0 win at Scunthorpe United, a 4-0 victory at Doncaster Rovers or that 2-1 comeback against Sunderland.
I doubt even a soothsayer could have predicted that player of the season Wes Burns would have ended the season at right-back and made the role his own.
However, Barton isn’t a book to be judged by its cover despite his mistakes – and there have been many.
He’s twice substituted a substitute – Dempsey and Chris Long – as well as taken the captaincy from Ash Eastham, some of his press conference comments have rubbed up people the wrong way, while his needless verbal scraps and the baiting of Sunderland fans throughout the season mean it could be hard to like him from the outside.
Does he need to play the pantomime villain?
If you take away all of the above, what Barton has done at Highbury this season has shown the potential of a fine manager given his youth policy and some of the football on show.
It might have been a mid-table finish but have there been improvements and positive change? Yes.
Is Barton the catalyst for that? Yes.
Six academy players have made their league debuts, starting with Nathan Sheron and followed by Ged Garner, Ryan Rydel, Barry Baggley, Dan Mooney and James Hill.
This should be the story of the season.
Barton is creating a pathway for young players and managing to protect them; witness the way he chose not to replace Rydel 30 minutes into a game and instead opted to wait until the break to protect the youngster’s confidence.
He put himself in a player’s shoes and more of that is needed; more empathy, more focus on the good work in the academy and homegrown talent pushing all the way.
Look too at his use of the loan system.
Tommy Spurr’s move might not have worked out but Lewie Coyle, James Husband, Jason Holt, Ched Evans and Harry Souttar all starred.
Getting those on permanent deals must be a priority, but in Coyle and Souttar, he has shown he can be trusted with Championship clubs’ young players.
With Evans, Husband and Holt, he also showed that Town could be a home for players to rediscover their feet.
Evans’ 18 goals and Husband’s improved confidence are testament to that, while the loss of Holt to injury in the latter stages of the season illustrated just how weak Town’s midfield supplies were.
While he might have been a hit in the loan market and in terms of youth development, Barton’s recruitment of permanent signings needs to improve.
There is a big summer of shopping ahead and a point to prove after last summer’s arrivals included the now departed Long and James Wallace as well as the disappointing Dean Marney.
That said, he was right about Grant, Dempsey and McAleny, all of whom have failed to shine since leaving with the latter two possibly heading for the exit door.
They should, though, take hope from the work Barton did with some of the players he inherited.
It was a make-or-break season for Burns and he passed with flying colours to seemingly become a man reborn.
Striker Ashley Nadesan was brought back from a loan spell at Carlisle United and handed his first league start – but may repay that opportunity by snubbing a new contract.
Ash Hunter’s 13 assists could have been more had he been given more minutes but he has shown an increased defensive awareness, while Alex Cairns has again shone in goal.
Finally, Evans proved an astute signing and has been a breath of fresh air both on and off the pitch.
He’s been a delight to interview and his jovial nature has improved the spirit of Town’s dressing room no end.
A naturally gifted footballer I hope, if he does not return to Town, he gets a chance to prove himself higher up.
That is one aspect when Barton’s ‘us against the world’ mentality paid dividends.
He had no bother with the negative press against Evans and gave him the armband at the end of the season.
It’s been a season of learning, both for Barton and everyone else associated with Town.
Where Barton is concerned, I want him to take on board over the summer that the world is not against him.
I do believe that he can be one of the greatest English managers; he just has to stop being his own worst enemy and practice what he preaches by learning from his mistakes.