Rogan Taylor: You don't look up to Liam and Noel. So why bother with Wayne and Rio?

The entire edifice of the football industry is resting on a diamond tip consisting of the world's most valuable players
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The Independent Online

Johnny Kelly was a popular footballer at Barnsley 50 years ago. He got £12 a week for his labours - more than double the wages of most of the flat-capped working men who watched him play. But Johnny wanted a little extra, so he ran a sideline: selling his own brand of washing detergent called Kelzone.

Every Friday afternoon, the nippy Scots left-winger would buy sodium hydrochlorate in large bottles, mix it with water in his bath, and suck on an old rubber pipe to siphon the brew into the waiting bottles. When he ran out on to the pitch on a Saturday, you could see the burn marks round his mouth where the bleach had overflowed.

This story of everyday football life in the Fifties is in stark contrast to the lifestyles of modern professionals. But the world of David Beckham and Michael Owen is now as different from that inhabited by Gary Lineker and Bryan Robson in the Eighties as theirs was from Kelly's.

What last week has made clear, in the England players' response to the FA's treatment of Rio Ferdinand, is that top footballers are becoming acutely conscious of their irreplaceability. A comparatively small group of top players - around 300 of them - dominate the football world. And there is a growing realisation that the $250bn-a-year industry derives most of its money from that same small group of players.

These are the best players from all over the world, yet around three-quarters of them play in western Europe; most of them for just a dozen or so rich clubs that can afford their services. In the last World Cup, out of 736 players taking part, 509 played in Europe. And of those 509, about 350 were employed by the "big clubs" in the "big five" leagues of Europe: England Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

The football industry is like an upside-down pyramid: the entire edifice is resting on this diamond tip consisting of the world's most valuable footballers. That places them in a special position; they are the gatekeepers of everyone's fortune.

Football players have been accused of a variety of crimes and misdemeanours this past week; from rape to "petulance". Nothing can excuse violent attacks, sexual assault and racism, but when it comes to less serious peccadilloes, is anyone really surprised? It is almost impossible for "ordinary" people like us to imagine what the life of a promising young footballer is like these days. Watching Wayne Rooney walk the 30 yards or so from Goodison to his car last Saturday was like witnessing a biblical scene. Hundreds of people strain and gasp to get close to the godling. The lad has just turned 18, for goodness sakes, he hasn't even done anything in football yet - but that doesn't matter to them.

The life of a young player like Rooney now bears little or no relationship to anything we know or understand. After the events of last week, football players may appear a predatory bunch, but the reality is that every time they step outside the doors of their mock Georgian mansions they are circled by a voracious pack of the desperate and the hungry. Some of these predators may wear sharp suits; some may look like wizened hacks with half a fag hanging out of their mouths; others are pretty teenage girls. Young top players are gatekeepers to the wondrous land of planet football. Almost everyone they meet "outside" is on the make. The envy of others is their daily bread.

We should think about these players as if they were rock'n'roll stars. They are much more like Liam Gallager than Tom Finney, "the Preston Plumber". How would we react if we discovered that some rock stars were working their way through the queue of groupies outside their hotel rooms? We'd shrug and think: "That's rock'n'roll".

The problem with this analogy is that footballers are also athletes who represent the nation. Perhaps that's what went wrong last week with the England players. They - and Rio Ferdinand in particular - didn't seem to think the drug test was that important. For a moment, too, they appear to have thought that "not turning up for the gig" was an option. What more evidence do we need that some of them are living in the clouds with the cuckoos?

Rogan Taylor is director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool