This was the week that Sir Tom Finney died and Manchester United reportedly offered Wayne Rooney a new contract worth £300,000 a week. Were these two events in any way connected? Of course, there was no causal link. But, in the minds of armchair moralists – and there were plenty venting their spleen on Twitter - there is a symbolic connection.
Finney represents a lost Age of Decency, whereas Rooney embodies our vulgar, modern Age of Excess. Footballers’ wages, like bankers’ bonuses, have become a public preoccupation; a symptom of decadence and moral decline. I think it’s time we booted all this mythologising into Row Z. Things weren’t better in Tom Finney’s day – not for professional footballers at any rate - and nor has modern football lost the plot in terms of footballers’ salaries.
I never saw Tom Finney play. By all accounts, he was a splendid footballer. And of course, it’s right that English football should honour one of its legends. But what I find slightly irksome is that many of the tributes to Finney have focused on his moral traits. He was a player, we are told, who stayed loyal to Preston North End, who was never booked, who took the bus to the stadium and who, when asked if he had regrets about his lack of major honours, replied ‘I’m more than happy with my lot, really I am’. Patrick Collins in the Daily Mail wrote that Finney ‘embodied all those virtues which once were revered: modesty, courtesy, shining decency and an instinctive nobility’. The subtext here is that there is no place for these moral virtues in the money-obsessed modern game.
Finney may have been a thoroughly decent bloke, but I refuse to be consumed by dewy-eyed nostalgia for an era in which professional footballers were treated like bonded serfs. There was nothing remotely ‘decent’ about the £20-a-week maximum wage or the retain-and-transfer system which effectively meant that footballers had no freedom of contract. Tom Finney is lauded for his loyalty to Preston but, in reality, he had no other choice. When Palermo tried to sign him in 1952, offering a £10,000 signing on fee and wages of £130 per month plus bonuses (he was earning £14 a week at the time), North End’s chairman Nathanial Buck blocked the move outright. Buck told Finney bluntly: ‘If tha’ doesn’t play for us, tha’ doesn’t play for no one.’ It would be unthinkable today for any owner to treat his club’s star player so shabbily and I think that’s something to celebrate. Thank the Lord for Jimmy Hill, George Eastham and Jean-Marc Bosman, who broke the feudal shackles which once bound professional footballers.
While no one is calling for a return to the old maximum wage, there is a widespread belief that footballers salaries are now out of control. Gail Sheridan, wife of Scottish socialist politician Tommy Sheridan, described Rooney’s reported £300,000 per week wage deal as ‘obscene’ in her newspaper column. Her argument is simple. No footballer is worth a six-figure weekly wage. ‘Brain surgeons, skilled nurses, fire fighters and other emergency service personnel all deserve high wages and good pensions’, wrote Sheridan. ‘But do footballers, bankers, politicians? If they were paid according to what they contribute to society I reckon most of them would be claiming working families tax credits to supplement their meagre incomes.’ To former Newcastle striker Micky Quinn, Rooney’s new wage deal illustrates the widening gulf between millionaire footballers and working-class fans. ‘How can a bloke who works nine-to-five, never mind someone on the dole, identify with a guy who has signed a £75million contract?’ wrote Quinn in a newspaper column.