James Lawton: England's Durban date is a publicity trip too far

Moyes is wrong to argue that Rooney should be treated differently - but right to call into question the FA's physical demands on players
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The Independent Online

It was apparently quite a heated scene involving the Ice Man and the Mad Jock. Sven, some felt, had not been so enraged since Ulrika Jonsson's maid told the world about his platform heels. David Moyes charged his way into the FA's medical room like a refugee from the set of Braveheart.

Wayne Rooney, the object of all this heat and passion, must have been very impressed by the mature forces working to smooth his passage to the peaks of the game.

How do we explain this behaviour? The best guess has to be rage generated by the endless road of football. The seasons of sport have long been obliterated but there is something quite monstrous about the current extensions of football and its professionally infant cousin rugby union.

After this week's publicity and political exercise in South Africa, Eriksson's England play a friendly with Serbia and Montenegro and finish with a European Championship qualifier against Slovakia on 11 June. Some of the nation's top rugby players will compete in the Zurich Premiership final at Twickenham on 31 May - then a few days later fly across the world to play Tests against New Zealand and Australia. This is what passes for the refining of superior professional sports talent. This is the culture of modern, moneyed sport. This is how we take hold of young thoroughbreds and wear them down.

Moyes has almost certainly locked himself into a time warp when he tries to shepherd his phenomenal prodigy, Rooney, away from the bright lights of the international stage. He should have noticed that recently in Sunderland Rooney became a national treasure with a performance which transformed Eriksson's team and put him head and shoulders above the rest. But then you have to consider some aspects of Moyes' nature and see why they would leave him quite so inflamed when he fought against the plan to involve Rooney in England's ludicrous South African trip.

Moyes is off the old Shankly, Stein, Ferguson block. He is a football man who despises the celebrity game. He looked at the FA's itinerary and was appalled. England fly to Johannesburg from Durban and return on the eve of their game with South Africa. This is to visit Nelson Mandela, a noble purpose no doubt, but what has it to do with football? Or an alleged build up to the important qualifier against Slovakia, who ran rings around England for much of the pre-Rooney game in Bratislava a few months ago?

David Beckham gets to play on the insistence of England's hosts, who see the game as an opening shot in their resumed bid to stage Africa's first World Cup. Beckham is, of course, unavailable for the Slovakia match because of accumulated yellow cards. But he will be the heart of the worldwide publicity, a favour for the South Africans which, no doubt, will be called in by England at some future, politically expedient moment. So he will not play against Slovakia, so he will not make way for somebody else to warm up for replacement duties in a vitally important match. There is a greater good and, anyway, think how much Beckham paid for his new hair-do. Think of all the photo-play.

Moyes looks at this, considers all the statements about how vital it is for Rooney to acquire experience on the world stage, and goes storming down to London. His manners are less than immaculate, no doubt, but he is a football man with football priorities, and if his arguments for Rooney's well-being are touched with self-interest, they are no less valid for that.

Where Moyes is wrong is in his belief that Rooney is somehow beyond the demands made on any professional player by the FA. Where he is right is that the FA should not squeeze the physical resources of the game until they squeak.

At 20 clubs, the Premiership is too big and the arguments made by the late Bertie Mee, manager of double-winning Arsenal 31 years ago, remain as legitimate as ever. He said that England would struggle to compete on the international side because the players simply did not have the time and space to development their game. They were imprisoned by the demands of too many games and too little repose.

And this, of course, was before they were required to fly across a chunk of Africa on the eve of a game. For a photo-shoot.

Yet another haircut, yet another front-page headline

There are some who say that my preoccupation with the celebrity ascent of David Beckham might just be cause for psychiatric attention. That being so I will make the point as nonchalantly as I can. My fingers, I can assure any dispassionate reader, are not at this moment pounding into the keyboard.

Hey, I just think it a little odd that on the morning after an exquisite performance by Thierry Henry in the FA Cup final, the front pages - yes, the front pages - of several newspapers were decorated not with an image of the lightly galloping Frenchman but, yes, Beckham.

What had he achieved while Henry sped to glory? He had his hair cut in long braids folded over his head in preparation for his much ballyhooed meeting with a Mr N Mandela, a man who acquired some celebrity of his own while rising from a prison cell to the leadership of his country.

We are told Mr Mandela "specially requested" a meeting with the globally famous David Beckham. Someone will call it an historic meeting between generations, but I say - and the men in white coats can go to hell - it is rather more a Private Eye front page waiting to happen. Send my copy to the padded cell.

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