Roy Keane defined the modern Manchester United in his “prawn sandwich” speech. It concluded, memorably: “I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell ‘football’, never mind understand it.”
Given Wayne Rooney’s status as England’s first £300,000-a-week footballer, it is safe to assume Keane’s strictures are as relevant in the boardroom as they are in the executive boxes. The desperation to secure a marquee player completes the surrender to corporatisation and a culture of gossamer-thin celebrity.
Keane, the captain United attempted to airbrush from history, had no issue with ruthless exploitation of weakness, be it physical, mental, philosophical or financial. Rooney’s advisers have profited from following his credo of getting their retaliation in first.
The new regime at Old Trafford may be able successfully to promote Rooney as the public face of Mister Potato, “Official Savoury Snack Partner of Manchester United”, but they have been exposed as naïve and narrow-minded.
The situation is as perverse as Keane’s nature. Rooney has seemingly been enriched beyond reason because of his perceived disloyalty and tactically expressed dissatisfaction. He had few realistic options but is untouchable, irrespective of the vagaries of form and fitness, for the rest of his career. By prematurely anointing him as a brand ambassador, United have turned the last street footballer into a sanitised salesman. His role is to impress North American investors to whom he is a life form as alien as a visitor from the Planet Zork.
These people have to be reminded, whenever the club’s accounts are published, that “Manchester United is one of the most popular and successful sports teams in the world, playing one of the most popular spectator sports on Earth”.
They are warned, in an evocatively named Cautionary Statement, about “numerous risks and uncertainties relating to the Company’s operations and business environment, all of which are difficult to predict and many are beyond the Company’s control”.
They operate in an arcane world which applauds the parasitic business strategy of the Glazer family, whose leveraged buyout, which costs United £410,000 a week in assorted debt-related charges, is notably risk- free, to them at least.
It is such a shame Keane was congenitally unsuited to management. Watching him operate at United in such an environment would have been wondrous. His brutal honesty and pathological refusal to suffer fools are wasted on glutinous TV presenters such as Adrian Chiles.
The Irishman always made a point of praising United’s away following, whom he described fondly as “hardcore”. He identified with their passion, and their response to Rooney as the season unfolds will be revealing.
Those links, on a basic human level, are incidental now, irrespective of Rooney’s ritual genuflection before “the fans” in the statement triggered by the signing of his new five-and-a-half-year contract. Their loyalty is just another risk factor on Form 20-F (File No. 001-35627) in United’s accounts.
The Glazers have already signalled their intention to reduce stewards’ wages in the event of failure to qualify for the Champions’ League. Season-ticket holders will be expected to pay full price for the privilege of watching teams of the quality of FC Sherriff, Pacos de Ferreira and CS Pandurii in the Europa League.
United will need the money to assuage agents of other pivotal players, who will doubtlessly demand parity for their clients. The wage structure of the club has been compromised and the price of team rebuilding has inflated.
It is as well they have invested £12 million in sports medicine and science facilities. Given Rooney’s physiological issues – he must work hard to keep his weight down, and lacks the tone of a natural athlete – he may have no more than three effective seasons left in him.
There used to be a football club on Sir Matt Busby Way. It is now lying in state in a funeral parlour in Florida. Manchester United, RIP.
Minister Grant left to look a ballet fool
Beware a sports minister being ushered around an Olympic Games in a Team GB tracksuit. The charm offensive is on, and rarely ends well. True to form, Helen Grant, the latest junior politician parachuted into one of Westminster’s most celebrated non-jobs, was engulfed by controversy while showboating in Sochi.
By suggesting girls should try cheerleading or ballet if they wished to remain “radiant”, she compromised the pivotal elements of her brief – sport and equality. A well-intentioned attempt to offer an alternative when mainstream sport is viewed by many schoolgirls as “unfeminine” blew up in her face.
It was a crass political misjudgement. Grant (below) is conforming to a miserable tradition. She had barely taken up her post when her sporting ignorance was exposed in a guerrilla television interview.
She has subsequently attempted to disguise her lack of influence with a series of high-profile announcements on women’s sport which lack clarity and credibility.
Sochi has provided some compelling female role models – snowboarder Jenny Jones, slider Lizzy Yarnold and curling’s Eve Muirhead.
The best? Speed skater Elise Christie, whose dignity in the face of indescribable misfortune was inspirational.
The worst? Helen Grant, Minister for Stereotypes.
The Big Easy
Thought for the day: there are easy matches in international football. See England’s qualification group for the ludicrously inflated Euro 2016 for confirmation. Whatever the draw in a six-team group designed to sell TV rights, a place in the finals in France is assured.
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