300 grand a week? Rooney is worth it
Forget the moralising about footballers’ wages - it’s a good thing players are no longer treated as serfs.
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.
The lament that today’s footballers are overpaid is a recurring motif. But it’s an argument that doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. For a start, how do you measure what a footballer is worth? You can’t simply compare a footballer’s salary to that of a nurse or a fire fighter or even a brain surgeon. In those professions, we can pretty much guarantee that, given the requisite training and development, we will produce a competent nurse, fire fighter or brain surgeon. The same logic doesn’t apply to footballers. Thousands of kids come through the youth academies of elite clubs, but a player of Rooney’s quality will only emerge once in a generation. He might not have lived up to the ‘White Pelé’ hype, but Rooney has been England’s best striker for nearly a decade. If we produced dozens of footballers of Rooney’s calibre every year, he probably wouldn’t be able to command such a high salary. But we don’t. And that’s why Manchester United are prepared to pay top dollar to retain his services.
If you’re going to make wage comparisons then peruse the Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes and you’ll see that the salaries of elite footballers – excluding income from endorsements – are generally lower than those of the stars of American football, baseball and basketball. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are in the same earnings bracket as the top US sports stars. Movie actors and pop stars also earn mind-boggling sums of money, but there isn’t the same green-eyed resentment about what Johnny Depp or Lady Gaga earns. You don’t hear anyone complaining that ordinary action-movie fans can’t identify with Iron Man star Robert Downey Jnr, Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, who reportedly earned $75million between June 2012 and June 2013. Funny that.
Getting to the top in football isn’t easy. It’s a ruthlessly meritocratic industry that requires years of hard work, training, self-discipline and monastic dedication. For those who make the grade, professional football is an extremely short and precarious career. Footballers are just one mistimed tackle away from the scrapheap. So why shouldn’t successful players line their pockets while they can?
However much you dress it up in pseudo-radical rhetoric, the infantile gripe that footballers are overpaid is still a steaming pile of reactionary horseshit. Yes nurses, fire fighters and ambulance crews are undoubtedly underpaid. But Wayne Rooney’s salary has no bearing on public-sector pay. Just because the economy is stagnating, it doesn’t follow that everyone else should be obliged to wear hairshirts. We don’t have to accept the logic of austerity. We don’t have to buy the argument that ‘we’re all in it together’ and therefore all need to make sacrifices. Isn’t it time we stopped moaning about Wayne Rooney’s pay packet and started demanding obscene wages for everyone?
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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