FOOTBALL star Joey Barton believes Wigan Warriors are “coming of age” – and will reign supreme at Old Trafford tomorrow night.
The former Manchester City, Newcastle and England midfielder is a huge rugby league fan.
And having tracked the Warriors’ progress to the Grand Final, he thinks they are poised to bring more silverware to the DW Stadium.
In an exclusive interview with the Wigan Evening Post, Barton said: “I just think this is Wigan’s time.
“I said from the start I thought Wigan.
“When they played St Helens last month, they were streets above but Saints won the game (18-14).
“Credit to Saints for the win, but I think that was a bit of a kick up the backside and since then, they’ve been really good value for their win against Castleford and then in the semi-final against Huddersfield.
“You have got Leeds wanting to do the treble and I know they are losing some big players in Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
“But I think this Wigan side is coming of age. Momentum is incredibly vital in sport and I think the wave of momentum - with what happened last year, the young players they have, and the speed with which they play - will be the difference.
“I think this is Wigan’s year.”
I really like the way Shaun Wane operates, his coaching style, his rapport with the players, and his franknessJoey Barton
Barton is one of many athletes - along with the likes of footballers Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins - who take a keen interest in the 13-a-side code.
And the 33-year-old often uses his Twitter account to champion the sport’s qualities to his three million followers, recently declaring league “the best sport on TV.”
“Hopefully my tweets have converted a few,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to team-mates about it, and the foreign lads who come over – you show them rugby league and they go, ‘Wow, what is that!’
“They become engrossed in the game.
“I do like rugby union, but I think with league, it’s simple to pick up, it’s not as complex, it’s faster.
“There are a lot of no-nonsense characters and, being from a football background, it’s refreshing. The use of technology, the interaction with the fans... for me, it’s a game that football can learn a lot from.
“I like the style of it. You want to watch a good game of rugby league, players who are on the front-foot and attack-minded.
“The best games are when both teams are fully committed to it, and week-in, week-out across Super League you get that.
“And I think you’ll get that on Saturday night.”
Barton first took an interest in rugby league as a promising junior footballer in Huyton.
“I played in the Rainhill league, so a lot of those boys you met played football and rugby league,” he said. “You’d go to places like Billinge and see games going on at the same time as ours.
“I was led away from playing it by my teachers, they had my best interests at heart and that was to do well at football, but I would have loved to have played rugby league.”
An international break this weekend will allow Barton – now at Championship outfit Burnley – to attend Old Trafford tomorrow evening.
And it will give him a chance to watch some of his favourite players.
“I really like John Bateman,” he said. “I’ve watched Wigan a few times this season, and he punches above his weight. He’s never afraid to carry the ball, he’s tireless, and he’s really come to the fore.
“But there are so many good players. I like Micky McIlorum, Jamie Peacock, too - no-nonsense players - and I think George Williams is fantastic, he’s got a great future.”
Barton may be backing Wigan tomorrow but he stopped short of pinning his colours to the Cherry and White mast.
“I live in between Warrington, St Helens and Wigan and people ask, ‘Who so you support?’” he said. “As the crow flies, St Helens is the closest club to me, but I want all north west clubs to do well.”
As well as being a league fan, Barton has become a student of the game to broaden his knowledge.
He was allowed into Wigan’s inner-sanctum - the dressing-room - before a recent Super League game, and was impressed with Shaun Wane’s coaching methods.
“I’ve met Kris Radlinski (rugby manager) and he’s been really kind and given me a lot of access,” added Barton.
“From a coaching perspective I really like the way Shaun operates, his coaching style, his rapport with his players and his frankness, too. He’s straight forward.
“I’m really keen to go to the training ground and see what they do during pre-season. As a player learning and hoping to go into a coaching role in the next few years, I think cross-pollination of sport is really healthy.
“It’s interesting to go into the great teams and organisations to see how they operate, and Wigan have had phenomenal success - they are the Man United of rugby league.”