It’s time we learned: footballers are not fans

This United fan says Wayne Rooney is neither a traitor nor a symbol of moral decay – he’s just another passing pro, grasping for gold and glory.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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A postscript has been added to this article following Rooney’s shock U-turn…

And so it came to pass that news of an estimated half-a-million job losses in the UK public sector was overshadowed by excited reports that one young man wants to switch his employers. The near-hysteria generated around Wayne Rooney’s demand to leave Manchester United demonstrates once more the inflated place that football occupies in the public life of our politics-free society today. And as with the 0-0 ‘debate’ over the government spending cuts, this is a row from which no side emerges with much in the way of glory.

I write as a lifelong United fan who finally abandoned his season ticket only this summer, and an ardent admirer who was desperate for Rooney – ‘the white Pele’ as the terrace song has it, though I always hoped he might be more of a pasty Scouse Maradona – to play at Old Trafford from the moment he exploded on to the pitch at Everton as a 16-year-old man-boy wonder. At first the revelation that he wants out made me angry at the player for leaving United in the lurch, angry at the manager for apparently screwing up relations with our star man, angry at the owners for running down the squad and thus giving Rooney his excuse to quit, and angry at myself for believing all the badge-kissing ‘I love United for life’ hype – again.

Then, however, I read and heard some of the media responses to Rooney’s demand to be sold, and that made me angrier still. Indeed, the guff talked about it all this week has almost been enough to make me want to defend the fallen Wayne (almost).

For many pundits it seems this is not just a sorry tale of one millionaire and his magic colour-changing football shirts. No, they see Rooney grasping for even more money and glory as a moral parable for the sorry state of the world, the ultimate symbol of the selfish greed of modern society. For these observers, today’s high-living lowlife footballers such as Rooney embody the nation’s moral decay, accused of turning their backs on the traditions of loyalty to the club and the fans, as supposedly personified here by United boss Fergie.

One columnist declares: ‘Restraint and loyalty used to be part of our national fabric. In his arrogance, Wayne Rooney demonstrates how badly the rot has set in among parts of our celebrity elite.’ Another suggests that, whereas we used to think of Rooney the football-loving scally as a ‘throwback’ to a more innocent age, now we can see him revealed as ‘an advanced expression of the ruthlessly self-propelling footballer’ of the future, willing to ‘vandalise’ the game and its traditions for money. Others have made the clunking comparison between Rooney’s well-publicised extra-marital activities and his proposed career-switch, one shrill headline announcing that United fans now ‘know how Coleen Rooney felt’.

Bloody hell. Calm down, calm down, as Harry Enfield’s Scousers used to say. There has not been such an outpouring of overblown self-righteous snobbery since – well, since the last time the media took up the sport of kicking Rooney the insolent prole (see Boo to the Rooney-bashers, by Mick Hume).

Yes, as United supporters we might be angry and upset that Rooney seems to have so quickly forgotten his recent declarations of undying loyalty to the club. But that is our fault for taking such spun stuff seriously in the first place. It is high time we caught on to the fact that footballers are not fans. They are not eternally loyal to the club that employs them, and why should they be? Like anybody else in a labour market, their legitimate aim is to sell their labour power to the highest bidder – as United legend Roy Keane advised Rooney this week, to ‘look after number one’, because as far as the clubs are concerned players are just ‘lumps of meat’. Note how ruthlessly Ferguson has got shot of players whom he deemed past their sell-by date at United. To decide you want to work for somebody else who offers you more money now and possibly better future prospects is really not the same thing as cheating on your wife.

When Real Madrid were seeking to buy Cristiano Ronaldo from United, an official of the Spanish club attracted considerable ridicule for suggesting that Ronaldo should be allowed to leave because slavery has been abolished. A stupid use of language, no doubt, but he did have a point about the peculiarities of footballers’ contracts.

Until 50 years ago, professional footballers in Britain were tied to a club whether they liked it or not by an unbreakable contract, and paid a maximum wage of £20 a week. Jimmie Guthrie, famous Scottish firebrand who captained Portsmouth’s 1939 FA Cup winners before becoming leader of the Professional Footballers Union, addressed the Trades Union Congress about their plight. He told the TUC he was there ‘as the representative of the last bonded men in Britain – the professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which, now in this year of 1955, human beings are being bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballer’s employment are akin to slavery.’

Of course, top footballers’ conditions and lives have changed beyond recognition over the past half-century, and today the talk is all of ‘player power’. Yet they are still bought and sold by clubs, often against their will, under contracts that are supposed to be binding. It is a long way from Guthrie and the maximum wage of £20-a-week to the riches of a Ronaldo or a Rooney. But the principle of the freedom of labour still ought to apply, I’m afraid – even when the ‘labour’ is kicking a football for a mere few million a year. It may well be true that dubious agents press players to move for more money these days. But that is no reason to try to stop them exercising their rights.

Top players who stick with one club through their careers, such as the saintly Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes at United, are very much the exception – and would even they have stayed without the hatful of medals? It has been pointed out to United fans crying ‘traitor’ this week that young Mr Rooney did much the same thing when he deserted his boyhood club, Everton, for Old Trafford and the promise of more cash and medals. And contrary to the impression given by some of the commentators, he is hardly the first player to contemplate such a controversial move from United to Manchester City in pursuit of gold and glory.

Those banging on about the game’s traditions of loyalty seem ignorant, for example, of the history of such a famous player as the great Billy Meredith, who played for City from 1900 to 1906, winning the FA Cup, then moved to United until 1921, where he won the club’s first two league titles and another FA Cup, then went back to City again, where he played until he was 47. In between times, Meredith was suspended for allegedly bribing an opponent, led player walkouts for better money, and organised the first footballers’ trade union to fight against restrictive contracts.

Much has changed since those days, of course, making a move such as Rooney’s far more likely. Football has been turned into a global industry and has been largely separated from its parochial roots. The English Premier League often acts like a world league that just happens to be played over here. This has led to tensions with the local fan base, as in the controversy over the proposed ‘39th game’ of the league season that EPL bosses hoped would be played somewhere in Asia. The changes have led to technically better football, but also to things that many would never have believed possible, such as American socca-capitalists owning United and Liverpool, and Scousers such as Rooney or former Liverpool legend Michael Owen signing for United – the latter as remarkable a move as Rooney going to City. (Those who hold up the giants of Spanish football as somehow a purer alternative to these rootless financial shenanigans might recall the world record transfer of Luis Figo from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000.)

Is there life for United after Rooney? Although his point about the club’s lack of ambition to sign top players looks more like an excuse than an explanation, it will chime with many supporters. Fergie is nearing the end of his remarkable tenure, and has never looked older than during his ‘dumbfounded’ press conference this week. Stripped of its three star forwards from only two seasons ago – Ronaldo, Rooney and Carlos Tevez – the playing squad looks an uninspiring mix of pensioners and pubescents, with a faceless mass of mediocre midfielders in between. The huge debts imposed by the Glazer family in buying the club – using the smoke-and-mirrors model on which the entire City of London ‘boom’ of the past decade was based – are a barrier to competing at the top of the transfer market, and there are worse times ahead on that financial front.

Always looking on the bright side for a moment, maybe Rooney’s you’ll-win-nothing-with-kids taunt will give Fergie the motivation to drive his team on for one more triumph. If, as seems more likely, not, c’est la guerre. Some of us ‘glory-hunting’ United fans grew up waiting 26 years between titles, and even wore a black armband to school when United were relegated in 1974. We will still be here when the players have gone and all that is left are the cockroaches, although fewer of us may be paying to get into Old Trafford. In the absence of a fans’ revolution to occupy the stadium and hang the last socca-capitalist with the guts of the last corporate PR apologist, maybe the only alternative is a buyout by some mega-rich Arab on the Manchester City scale. Just don’t expect me to campaign or cheer for it.

And what for Rooney after United? Everybody seems to think it will be Real Madrid or City, perhaps depending on whether Mrs Rooney wants to stay near her family or get far away from the fleshpots of Oldham. There is also talk of such a mega-deal being harder to do these days, given the financial climate and the new Euro-rules on big club finances. But wherever he ends up, the other question remains, as he turns 25 might Rooney’s best playing days already be behind him? He is, as I argued on spiked during the World Cup, the greatest talent English football has produced in 40 years. But there have always been question marks about how long he could sustain his all-action style of play, and he has looked in grisly form for the past six months. Some have even observed that a true United legend, Georgie Best, with far greater talent to burn, was already effectively burnt out when he was Rooney’s age, although Best also had to carry a knackered team.

Anyway, that may all be wishful thinking by bitter United fans. But I confess it would make me feel better to think my ex-hero might be finished. Yes, he has the right to make the wrong move. But he is dead to me now. There is nothing more fickle than us loyal football fans.

STOP PRESS: Rooney signs new contract at United…!

In the last para of my article, I initially thought about saying: ‘He is dead to me now – unless of course he does an unlikely U-turn and swears his loyalty to United once more.’ And lo, it came to pass that on Friday it was reported that Wayne had indeed flip-flopped and signed a new five-year contract to remain at Old Trafford, after talks with the manager and owners.

The radio phone-ins are alive with conspiracy theories about how Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney cooked it all up to make the Glazers spend more money on players. It seems more likely that the wily old Fergie has out-manoeuvred young Wayne in the PR stakes, who has then bottled it in the face of the backlash. No doubt we have not heard the last of all this.

In the meantime, of course, he has gone from zero back to hero once more and we all wish ‘Our Wayne’ a speedy return to fitness and form. As I concluded, there is nothing more fickle than us loyal football fans. But the points above about the true status of players and the state of football and United in particular still stand. Let’s remember this carry-on the next time Rooney or some other fly-by-night starts with the badge-kissing nonsense. They are only footballers, not proper fans. Like the old song says, we won’t get fooled again. Will we…?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He is speaking in the session Fans or financiers: who should own football? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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