'The media want to examine Wayne's life'

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The Independent Online

The disclosure that the Manchester United forward owes £700,000 to Stephen Smith, who manages Owen's property portfolio, has been queried by sources close to the striker although what is not in doubt is that the 20-year-old has run up daunting debts betting with Smith. Rooney's advisers are now attempting to establish how much money their client owes Smith and there have already been meetings between lawyers from both sides.

After yesterday's victory over Arsenal, Rooney was asked whether gambling debts had ever affected his performances. He said: "Look at them. You can answer that yourself."

The relationship between Owen and Rooney, who will lead England's attack in Germany next summer, is at the centre of the dispute and although they are understood not to have fallen out over the debts, there is disquiet at the way in which Rooney has been treated by his more senior colleague. Owen, a keen racehorse breeder, introduced Smith to his England team-mates - he has become the team's unofficial bookmaker - which has infuriated those closest to Rooney.

Despite his importance to the team, Rooney remains one of the youngest members of a squad who is known for being especially generous with the part of his £60,000-a-week salary that is not invested for his future. While betting is a popular pastime for the England squad, there is alarm at how easily Rooney was allowed to spend thousands of pounds betting on horses, greyhounds and football matches in which he was not involved.

While players are banned from betting on games in which they play, the England team and officials will have to sign a pledge before the World Cup finals that they will not gamble on any match in the tournament. The Football Association can do nothing to prevent players gambling in their own time but Sven Goran Eriksson will speak to Rooney and Owen ahead of the tournament to make sure there are no problems between them.

The most immediate question is the size of the debt which Rooney's side is trying to establish. He has told his agent, Paul Stretford, that the debts were run up in the six months to Christmas but he only disclosed them to his advisers around two months ago when Smith became more insistent that he pay up.

Stretford's Proactive company has asked to see records of its client's bets and the odds that were on offer. However, it is understood that the bets were taken on such an informal basis, mainly over the telephone and by text message, that there are few records of Rooney's betting, much less the odds he was offered. A spokesman for Proactive refused to comment.

There are also doubts over whether Smith was licensed to take bets, although he has retrospectively applied for one. Sir Alex Ferguson and United officials have been made aware of the situation and Ferguson dismissed the reports as "absolute rubbish".

"We have a media who want to examine every part of his life. We had it with George Best, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham - they will search for something for headlines."

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