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Hard to love you now, Wayne

October 23, 2010 5 comments

Wayne Rooney was always destined to be a legend.

Decorated with natural gifts beyond those of any Englishman for a generation, he was also a very English player, full of heart and endeavour: a man fans could be proud to love and to call their own. It is the combination of Rooney’s being better than all his England team mates and his fans’ perception of him as the committed, down-to-earth, people’s player, that made him their favourite as well as the team’s talisman.

The unseemly saga that unfolded this week is all the more depressing for that. Rooney, in collusion with a clever and determined agent no doubt, has behaved, at best, like an embarrassing, stroppy teenager, and, perhaps more realistically, like a graceless, conniving mercenary.  His actions have been a direct challenge to his employers at Manchester Utd, to his manager and his team mates. Yet he has been rewarded with a brand new 5-year contract, reportedly worth £160,000 a week.

Other than the emotional impact that revelations last month might still be having on Rooney and his family, the historical context of sleazy behaviour by a range of England players is not strictly relevant here. But it does point us to raise the question: how much are supporters supposed to put up with? How far from reality can these players ascend (descend) before we cease to see in them that which was so recognisable and appealing in the first place? Sport is made such a compelling spectacle in part by distilling and dramatising human endeavour. It is that which, lest we forget, leads supporters to part with ever-spiralling wads of hard-earned to pay the wages of its stars. But if our heroes can no longer be recognised as one of us, will we love them?

For we have loved Wayne Rooney. He was ‘crucial’ to our chances in the 2006 World Cup despite beginning the tournament with one leg, and he was equally crucial to our chances last summer. While he flopped, so did England. While he oozes skill, for many fans he also embodies what they love about football and about themselves: the honesty, the passion, the love for the game. The love heaped upon Rooney is clearly something which, at some time at least, mattered to Rooney. His outburst against England fans who booed the team’s World Cup draw with Algeria showed he found it difficult to deal with not being adored.

Setting aside the fact that Rooney has not played to the sparkling level that made his name for several months, let us remember that prior to this week’s elaborately constructed contractual negotiation, he was already being paid £90,000 a week by Man Utd. He has several lucrative endorsement deals and gets paid every time he plays for

"How wrong is the game?" Ian Holloway has been passionately outspoken on the issue

England. He owns a mansion in Cheshire. In short, he is not short of a few bob. Such a public demand for increased pay seems not just ungrateful, but both insensitive and undignified at a time when his club’s owners are in debt and his fans are asked to pay nearly £50 just to see a first round Carling Cup tie at home to Wolves. It also draws wider, sadder reflections on the significance of player power and the state of football today. Ian Holloway is surely right when he says “football should look at itself.”

If Rooney chooses to play audacious contractual hard ball to secure a wage rise from £90,000 a week to £160,000 a week, while of course accepting huge rewards for his various sponsorship deals (and having sold his wedding to OK magazine), he is eschewing emotion, honesty and passion for the game and cashing in on his assets; smartly making the most of his position. But, that being the case, can we any longer let him off the hook for his (various) transgressions on the grounds that he is just a naive boy who would play football for nothing if it meant he could do it every day?

There are some sportsmen whom fans admire, like Pete Sampras or Tiger Woods. There are some whom they love, like Andrew Flintoff, or, until recently at least, Wayne Rooney.

I think I was able to turn a blind eye to the World Cup flops, the fouls and the foul-mouthed rants. Even the hookers were being forgotten, although the cumulative impact of these might have been starting to tell. No doubt, once he regains form, I will continue to admire Wayne Rooney.

It’s just hard to love him now. To Manchester Utd and England supporters alike, Rooney has made his priorities very clear.

I hope he can live without the love.

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