The battle of Wayne

One day in 2004, Wayne Rooney was doing what he usually does when he isn’t playing football: watching TV. At the time he was breaking with Everton, the club his clan had always supported. Sky TV was reading out text messages from viewers who called him a rat, a greedy traitor, and so on. Watching at home, Rooney grew fed up. He texted the programme himself: “I left because the club was doing my head in – Wayne Rooney.”

At first Sky assumed the text was fake. “Would the people pretending to be Wayne Rooney stop sending text messages?” asked the presenter. Later, though, the presenter said something like: “We know Wayne Rooney is watching – and we are watching him.”

At this, Rooney became paranoid. It was dark outside. He had already been receiving death threats from disgruntled Everton fans. Was someone stalking him with a secret camera?

It was a scene that captured many of the difficulties of being Wayne Rooney. On the upside, he is the most accomplished English footballer since Bobby Charlton retired 35 years ago. On the downside, everyone wants a piece of him: fans, the media, his agent, his club Manchester United, and United’s manager Alex Ferguson. In fact, due to his peculiar historical circumstances – a great English player living in modern England – Rooney may be the most grabbed-for footballer ever.

The latest battle for Wayne Rooney, this month, transfixed much of the nation. First Rooney suddenly let it be known that he was leaving Manchester United, the club where everyone had assumed he would play for ever. Fans and Ferguson expressed surprise. Again, as in 2004, he was called a greedy traitor. Again, he got death threats. Then, equally suddenly, Rooney signed a new improved five-year contract with United worth an estimated £9m-£10m a year. Once again, everyone was surprised.

It’s hard to know what Rooney thinks, because he rarely speaks in public, and has never been heard to say an interesting sentence in his life. Yet from his seat in front of his TV, watching the world talk about him, he must marvel at how everyone gets him wrong. None of the people who want a piece of Rooney – not even Ferguson – seems to understand what it’s like to be him.

There are two types of English footballer, those from the working class and those from the underclass, and Rooney is the latter. He was born on October 24 1985 at Fazakerley Hospital in Merseyside, and his first home was a one-bedroom council house that later became a drugs rehabilitation centre in the poor Liverpool neighbourhood of Croxteth. His father (also named Wayne) was an intermittently employed casual labourer. His mother worked as a school dinner lady, and stayed in the job, earning “about £287 a month” by Rooney’s estimate, even after her son grew rich.

They were a tight-knit Catholic family, part of the Irish diaspora that had crossed the sea to Liverpool over the previous 200 years. Eight branches of the Rooney clan lived in Croxteth. Every summer they would rent a coach and head off en masse for the holiday camp Butlins. Rooney grew up knowing not only his cousins, but his future wife Coleen and her cousins too.

He never dreamed of becoming a professional footballer; he was always going to become one. Aged nine, he joined Everton’s academy. Soon afterwards, in a match against Manchester United, he scored with an overhead kick. Initially there was silence, but after a few seconds even the parents of the opposing team broke into applause. That doesn’t often happen in children’s football.

Rooney spent much of his childhood kicking the ball against the wall of his grandmother’s house. He sometimes pretended to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and at school showed an interest in the life of Jesus but not in much else. He left education at 16 with no certificates – a rare feat in today’s Britain – and almost immediately broke into Everton’s first team.

Aged 17 years and 111 days, he became the youngest man ever to play for England. Afterwards a friend drove him back to Croxteth (Rooney still didn’t have his driving licence) where he spent the evening eating crisps, drinking Coke and kicking a ball around with his pals, who wanted to know what David Beckham was really like.

English football wasn’t supposed to work like that. Traditionally, players were only picked for their country once they had served their time and established themselves as “honest pros”. As in most British working-class occupations, seniority mattered. But Rooney broke all the rules. At one early training session with England, the boy dribbled past several players and then, as was his habit, lobbed the keeper. Initially there was silence. Then his fellow internationals spontaneously broke into applause.

Like every new celebrity in modern Britain, Rooney became the object of hype. At first, he was very popular. He was treated as the authentic masculine counterweight to Beckham’s constructed effeminate beauty. There are two types of British footballer: ugly ones like Rooney, Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne and Nobby Stiles, and pretty ones like Beckham and Michael Owen. The British public usually prefers the ugly ones.

And English fans had been waiting decades for Rooney to arrive. Not only did he score goals, but he was that rare thing in English football: a player who sees space. Football is best understood as a dance for space. The team that can open spaces when it attacks, and close down spaces when it defends, generally wins. There are two kinds of passers: ones like Beckham, who pass the ball straight to a teammate, and ones like Lionel Messi, who pass into empty space. Rooney finds space. It’s partly because he has perfect control of the ball, which means that he never has to look down at it and instead can run with his head up looking for space. The few previous Englishmen who could see space – chiefly Gascoigne, and several so-called “mavericks” in the 1970s – ruined themselves with drink and other vices. Rooney hasn’t. He has been England’s main man since he was 18. The country’s need for him often segues into dependence. Among the many groups who want their piece of him, England’s fans often appear the most desperate.

Rooney was never surprised or confused by his own rapid rise. He liked playing for England at 17. It was good football, and he knew he was good enough. Before kickoff, while experienced internationals would sit around the changing-room like bags of nerves, he would be banging a ball against the wall as if he were back home in Croxteth. He couldn’t wait to go out and play. “I have never gone around pinching myself, saying this is unbelievable, isn’t it amazing what I’m doing,” he says in his autobiography, a revealing document despite being aimed at eight-year-olds. “Of course it’s fantastic playing for Man Utd, brilliant playing for England, but my main thought when I turn out for either of them is the same – I deserve it.” On the football field Rooney is happy because he controls events. Off the field, by contrast, other people often control him.

He first noticed this when the tabloids revealed his visits to prostitutes. Like every public figure in the UK, Rooney has forfeited his private life. Beckham before him had become a vehicle for Britons to mock their new cult of vapid celebrity, and now Rooney became a way for them to mock the supposed habits of members of the underclass, or in British slang, “chavs”. Rooney rose during the country’s boom years, when even some of the poorest Britons had discretionary cash, and Coleen’s shopping habits and tan were scrutinised for “chav” markers. The clan’s parties were written about with breathless mockery.

Eventually Rooney learnt to keep secrets from close friends and relatives, in case they inadvertently let something slip and it got into the tabloids. “Every time I got in the car, I was looking in the mirror to see if I was followed,” he says in his autobiography. His recent loss of form may be connected to new tabloid claims about his dealings with prostitutes.

Rooney spends his leisure time watching TV partly because footballers need to rest, partly because he has few other interests, but partly also because despite having a bodyguard he cannot leave his house without being hassled. In short, he is a multimillionaire semi-captive. Had he been a great Spanish or German footballer, life would probably have been easier.

Then his managers wanted control too. David Moyes, his manager at Everton, tried to protect the boy in the man’s milieu. Rooney didn’t want to be protected. He was perfectly happy in the milieu. Even at 18, he knew he was too good for Everton. And so – despite the clan’s links to the club – he left for Manchester United.

United’s fans became another group who want their piece of Rooney. Like many of Everton’s fans in 2004, they were enraged to discover this month that he would contemplate leaving their club. On the field Rooney, his face reddened with effort, doing the defensive running that the most gifted players sometimes disdain, gives the impression of devotion to the cause. He looks like the British fan’s ideal: a fan in a jersey. Surely he would want to stay at United forever? If he didn’t, he must just be greedy.

This dichotomy drawn by fans and media – you’re either loyal or greedy – misunderstands how footballers think. The word footballers use to describe themselves is “professionals”. Professionals – whether they are footballers, academics or bankers – don’t choose between love and money. They pursue success in their “careers” (another favourite footballers’ word). If they can get success, then money will follow.

A footballer knows his club will dump him if he isn’t good enough, and so he will dump the club if it isn’t good enough. Rooney was good, and so he left Everton for United. Footballers regard clubs not as magical entities but as employers. Like most professionals, they will move if they can find a better job. The better job isn’t necessarily a better-paid one. Rooney could reportedly have earned more than £180,000 a week at Manchester City, and if he had put himself on the market, Real Madrid might have offered him more too. But United’s total package – the chance of prizes, the familiar surroundings, plus pay – seems to have appealed most. This is careerism rather than greed.

Footballers hardly ever come out as careerists. That’s because the game is pervaded with the rhetoric of lifelong love for club: players are always trying to keep fans happy by kissing their club’s badge or talking about how they have supported the club since childhood. Yet probably no professional footballer is “loyal” in the sense that fans use the word. Even Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool defender who is considered “Liverpool through and through”, supported Liverpool’s rivals Everton as a boy, and says he would leave Liverpool if he ceased to be a regular starter. Pundits sometimes rhapsodise about the old days, when players often spent their entire careers at one club, but that was because clubs could then simply forbid them to move. No longer.

Contrary to popular opinion, Rooney isn’t especially selfish. He’s simply typical of his profession. Nowadays he is often contrasted with teammates like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, who have supposedly stayed “loyal” to United all their careers. But it would be more accurate to say that these men have a happy employer-employee relationship with United. Had United benched Giggs in his prime, he would surely have been out the door fast. Instead United was the perfect workplace for him. It didn’t suit Rooney as well.

Alex Ferguson, United’s manager these last 24 years, is a paternalist employer. He tries to create father-son relationships with his players. That’s why he doesn’t mind that at 68 he’s generationally out of touch with them. When Cristiano Ronaldo was trying to leave for Real Madrid in 2008, Ferguson talked about “the boy”. He said, “If it was your son, you’d give him the best advice possible on his career. Now, I honestly believe that could be the worst thing he could do – go to Real Madrid.” Some players enjoy this type of working relationship. Giggs, whose own father abandoned the family, has thrived under Ferguson for 20 years. But it’s not what Rooney wants.

When he threatened to leave United, like Ronaldo he was treated as a thankless child. “Since the minute he’s come to the club, we’ve always been a harbour for him,” Ferguson complained. “Any time he has been in trouble, we have done nothing but help him. I was even prepared to give him financial advice, many times. I don’t know how many times we have helped him in terms of his private life and other matters.”

Ferguson sees intervening in Rooney’s private life as central to his remit. Like many English fans, the manager has in his head the “Gazza” narrative: great British talent falls prey to temptations and forfeits his career. (This month alone, Gascoigne has admitted drunk driving and been arrested for suspected possession of Class A drugs.) Ferguson always thought that Gascoigne’s career might have been saved if he had joined United. Rooney is often likened to Gascoigne. Indeed, his nickname inside the game is “Wazza” (partly because “wazz” is British slang for urination).

British talents (think of George Best, or Stan Bowles) have traditionally needed a father figure. But Rooney doesn’t. In fact, he barely seems to need a manager at all. His thoughts on his first meeting with Ferguson show his typical lack of interest in and insight into people from outside his clan: “I was surprised by how tall Sir Alex Ferguson was.”

Rooney has his own father, and uncles, and if he has a second father, it’s his agent. In autobiographies of modern players, the agent typically emerges as a rare close friend made in adulthood: everyone else the player meets wants a piece of him, and the agent, though he also wants a piece, acts as the gatekeeper. Paul Stretford won a ferocious battle among agents for control of Rooney, has represented him all his career, and also represents Coleen.

“Paul looks after everything and I trust him 100 per cent. We’ve been through a lot together,” Rooney says in his autobiography. “Mostly it just went over my head. So I just let Paul get on with it.” This month’s battle for Rooney’s signature was in part a battle between two wannabe father figures. When Stretford threatened that Rooney would leave United, he was bargaining for a better contract, but he was also showing Ferguson how weak the manager’s grip on the player is.

Afterwards, Ferguson tried to cast the new contract as an errant son returning to the fold. He said, “I think Wayne now understands what a great club Manchester United is.” Rooney was made to apologise to his teammates and to Ferguson.

Yet the affair showed that United need Rooney more than he needs them. True, it would be hard for Rooney to move to another English club: uncomprehending fans would make his life a misery. And he seems poorly equipped to move to Spain. Rooney once scored zero per cent on a Spanish exam at school, and Spain is far from his clan. Still, he does have an unlimited choice of willing employers.

United, by contrast, are short of superstars. The club may never have been so dependent on one player. Previously Ferguson has always been happy to lose great players who had broken the father-son compact: Ronaldo, Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane. Yet he cannot afford to lose Rooney. United have several ageing players who will need replacing soon: Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar. The talent in the club’s pipeline tends to disappoint: United has produced no great youth player since Beckham’s generation emerged 15 years ago. The club’s frugal owners, the Glazer family, limit spending on new players. Without Rooney, United look a little thin.

It’s the story of his life: people want a piece of him. That isn’t always fun. This spring United kept playing him exhausted and hurt. By the time the World Cup came around he was empty. He played poorly for England, and the nation’s fans – who weren’t getting their piece of him – booed him. After one game he shouted into a nearby TV camera (and if you’re Rooney there is always a nearby TV camera): “Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is, for f***’s sake.”

Rooney knows that fans, managers, media and agents love him only because they need him. Their “loyalty” quickly turns to anger, intrusion, exploitation or mockery. He has no intention of being “loyal” in return. That means that sooner or later, his spat with United may well be repeated.

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