Sam Wallace: Wayne Rooney has come through the most exacting meritocracy to earn £300,000-a-week at Manchester United
It is telling that none of his fellow players have criticised the huge deal
I was there the night that Wayne Rooney’s first professional deal was announced, in the Joe Mercer suite at Goodison Park, on a Friday evening in January with Everton at home to Sunderland the following day. The most vivid memory of that occasion? We could hardly hear Rooney speak. At 17 and unprepared for the cameras and reporters, the words stuck in his throat and he could not force them out above a whisper.
It took David Moyes, his manager then as now, to intervene and pick up the story. “When he gets the ball at Goodison Park, 40,000 people stand up,” Moyes said, “so that tells you what people think about Wayne Rooney.”
There were so many Everton directors who wanted a place on the top table that they were packed together like builders on the front seat of a van. Rooney was in a suit and so anxious after his first few words that he reached for a glass bottle of water and was about to swig from it until Moyes told him in a stage whisper to “pour it in the glass, Wayne”.
He had been eligible to sign a professional deal since his 17th birthday in October and the delay had caused some anxiety at the club, with interest reported from Real Madrid. His first pro deal took him from a weekly scholar’s wage of £75 to £8,000, with bonuses meaning it exceeded, he later revealed in his first volume of memoirs, the £13,000 a week we reported at the time.
Even then, Rooney was nobody’s fool. He was the first teenager in British football to sign an image rights deal that gave him a percentage of the club’s commercial earnings on him, although it was a long way from the treasure chest that Manchester United laid before him last week.
Now Rooney has the benefit of the most finely honed commercial organisation in English football – United’s – working on his behalf to top up his £250,000-a-week salary with commercial deals to take it beyond the £300,000 mark. The relentless deal-making unit set up to feed the Glazer debt is now also calibrated to make him money. No one player bigger than the club? On those terms, Rooney is practically a partner in the business.
At Selhurst Park on Saturday, homage was paid once again to the late Sir Tom Finney, a footballer who belonged to an era, we are reminded, when players were honourable, unpretentious and almost invariably exploited. Finney, we have been reminded over the last few weeks, worked as a plumber to supplement his wages. How absurd that he could not live by his talent for football alone.
This is a country that does not like its footballers too rich and comfortable. Conversely, hands are wrung when former players find themselves at the other extreme, in poverty, when all has been squandered or given over to addiction. Rooney will never trouble the PFA’s hardship fund, and he is worth millions to the Treasury, but that will not prevent the usual backlash against him.
To earn what he does, he has come through the most exacting meritocracy. Even the venture capitalism practised by the Glazers, as red in tooth and claw as it comes, is yet to figure out a way of getting him on the cheap.
Can this kind of salary be justified in relation to those earned by nurses, doctors and teachers? Of course not. Had he refused to sign the deal, were United prepared to invest that £80m they may end up paying Rooney on nurses, doctors and teachers? Sadly not.
Is he worth it? Rooney has been written off more times than one cares to remember. He has been accused of failing to deliver on his early promise – as if he could have played the same way for the rest of his life as he did at Euro 2004, when his barrelling, head-down style came as a surprise to opponents. No question, he has made mistakes. But they are fewer these days.
Back he comes, time and again. His goalscoring, and occasionally his form, have ebbed and flowed. Yet this is a man who will, in all likelihood, break Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring records for United and England which have stood for more than four decades.
Unlike Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rooney has never had the benefit of a United team built around him. His career at the club has been defined, in many respects, by the kind of team-mates he has had to accommodate, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Robin van Persie.
One suspects that if Moyes cannot make Juan Mata work as right-sided player drifting in, it will be Rooney who is forced to take up the wide position at the expense of his own goalscoring.
It has always been a personal opinion that Rooney, for all his volatility, has done well. At Everton he was given the No 18 shirt, left vacant by Paul Gascoigne (no pressure there then). When Gascoigne was the age Rooney is now, he was at Rangers and not the elite player he had once been, although he went on to have a last hurrah at Euro 1996. Already ravaged by injury, he had 33 England caps at Rooney’s current age, 28 years and four months. Rooney has 88.
In his first autobiography, Rooney lists those peers he played with for the England Under-15s: Wayne Routledge, now at Swansea, who has had a good career, and Lee Croft, once of Manchester City, now at St Johnstone. They were the only ones to make it as professionals, alongside Rooney.
Like lots of boys in this country who show a talent for football, Rooney bought a ticket for that particular lottery, and committed to the training sessions, the matches and the precedence they take over school. It is no different to any elite-level sportsman. The sacrifice is huge, the chances of success slim, the rewards enormous.
When I left Selhurst Park on Saturday, an hour after the end of the game, Jason Puncheon was still in his kit and boots by the side of the pitch with his children. They were waiting for Rooney, who arrived a few minutes later, to have their picture taken. It is noticeable that from his fellow professionals there has been very little resentment voiced to the size of his new deal.
They know better than anyone that Rooney has come through the most rigorous selection process in modern sport. Manchester United scout all over the world, in a sport played by more people than any other, and they still could not find anyone, certainly anyone available, they would sooner spend that money on than Rooney.
Triple punishment question will require creative thinking
On Saturday, the International Football Association Board (Ifab) meets in Switzerland with the question of “triple punishment” on the agenda – the red card, penalty and suspension levied against the likes of Wojciech Szczesny and Martin Demichelis last week.
The Uefa president, Michel Platini, wants Ifab, which controls the laws of the game, to change it. The red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity was brought in to eradicate the kind of professional foul that Willie Young made infamous in the 1980 FA Cup final.
Platini has floated the idea of 15-minute sin bins. Surely unworkable in the case of goalkeepers. It has been suggested that a red card would only be awarded to the offender if a penalty was missed. Until it was pointed out that if the offence took place early in the game, there would arguably be more benefit in the opposing team missing the penalty and putting their opponents down to 10 men.
Solving this one might be beyond even the creativeness of Platini’s foot soldiers.
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