Why they hate to see Rooney having fun
Why did the 24-year-old footballer’s normal night out become the focus for so much handwringing and bile?
It didn’t look like a particularly remarkable Saturday night for a 24-year-old man out with his mates. Start off with a Chinese before heading to a club. Then get pissed within, need a piss without, and perhaps have a fag. In between, indulge in a bit of arms aloft miming, plus a bit of arms around your mates’ shoulders singing. Oh, and suddenly remember that you’ve taken your now decidedly fed-up wife/girlfriend out as well.
The problem was that the 24-year-old man was none other than Wayne Rooney, football genius and, as it’s now obligatory to call anyone associated with Fabio Capello’s ill-fated school-style trip to South Africa, England World Cup Flop. And because it was Wayne Rooney England World Cup Flop, it meant that his every happy move, caught on a telephoto lens, was a symbol of All That Is Wrong With Modern Footballers. ‘Wayne Rowdy’, laughed the Sun; ‘Can Rooney put this summer of shame behind him?’, sniffed the Guardian.
As summers of shame go, having a boozy night out with your friends after playing disappointingly in a football tournament hardly seems that shameful. It’s not raping and pillaging. It’s not even banking. Yet it seems that when there’s an opportunity to vent one’s spleen towards the contemporary footballer, perspective is the last thing on critics’ minds. Weighing rather more heavily is a sense that these people shouldn’t be happy; they shouldn’t be enjoying their wealth. Or if they must enjoy it, they should do so with a little more taste, a touch more decorum. These men, or sometimes boys, just don’t deserve the life they lead.
This is not often said out loud exactly. It’s dressed up in sermons about professionalism, as if professionalism automatically entails Luther-like levels of hair-shirted self-discipline. On cue, the Daily Mail seized upon Rooney’s fag break, juxtaposed it with pictures of other England World Cup Flops such as Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon with cigs in hand, and went so far as to attribute England’s World Cup Flop itself to an ‘unhealthy penchant for cigarettes’. Can cigarettes really explain why England couldn’t keep hold of the ball for longer than their opponents? Could English players’ occasional flirtation with the death stick really explain why Gareth Barry played like he’d borrowed someone else’s legs, or why Glen Johnson is not so keen on the defending part of being a defender?
As for boozing, there are plenty of examples where a drink – and the relaxation it involves – have benefited professional footballers. Famously, Notts Forest manager Brian Clough, sensing his players were nervous on the eve of a League Cup final in 1979, decided to get them all drunk. They won. In the Premier League era, Man Utd’s players, in the final game of their 1992/3 title-winning season, triumphed 3-1 despite having been up til five in the morning boozing at Steve Bruce’s house. Even in last month’s World Cup, the one okay game England played – against Slovenia – came after Capello had allowed the players to have a few beers. ‘Yesterday evening they drank beer before the game. And I saw the team play with the spirit that we lost in the games we played before this game’, said Capello.
Besides, players have their fitness constantly monitored by their clubs. Is it plausible that Man Utd wouldn’t know if the occasional boozy, raucous night out was affecting Rooney’s fitness levels? His manager Alex Ferguson didn’t seem that worried when asked about Rooney’s performance in a friendly this week: ‘He’s only been training for six days but he impressed me.’
But then again the attacks on footballers’ lifestyles aren’t really informed by genuine worries about a player’s cardiovascular condition. They are driven by something else, one part snobbery, one part sanctimony. It is an unpleasant combination, typified by the article in the Guardian about Rooney’s latest escapade. One paragraph is dedicated to the scene of Rooney’s crime: ‘Panacea, for those unacquainted with Manchester’s nightlife, is the establishment favoured by north-west footballers, the nouveaux riches, assorted wannabes and never-will-bes. It is a tawdry place where the clientele seem to be under the misapprehension that drinking champagne is a symbol of class, and it is easy to imagine Ferguson’s reaction upon seeing his best player chugging on a cigarette (in mitigation, he does not look like a natural smoker), appearing to urinate behind a dustbin or bouncing down the street, chanting football songs. It was bright daylight – 5.30am – and it could be a scene from Ibiza Uncovered.’
Rooney’s crime stands revealed. It had nothing to do with his fitness levels, his professionalism, his actual performance. It had everything to do with how he, as an incredibly wealthy young man – an incredibly wealthy young man from a working-class background – decides to live. He has wealth, but, as that Guardian journalist sees it, he doesn’t have class. He has enormous power to consume, but he doesn’t know how to consume tastefully. Rooney’s real crime was a failure to conform to the dictates of established taste, a failure to have realised that it is not just his football being judged, but his entire lifestyle.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
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