James Lawton: Rooney wins. If winning is a huge pay rise and making matchwood of United's image

Saturday 23 October 2010 00:00

Maybe there is someone at Old Trafford, and perhaps it might even be Sir Alex Ferguson, in a mood to celebrate.

So let's hope some kind soul is handy with a damp towel to place over his head and the key to a darkened room.

Let's be very sure about one thing. There was only one winner yesterday when Wayne Rooney jettisoned his avowed concerns about the crippled ambition of Manchester United and signed a new five-year contract.

It was Rooney, and this remained implacably true however hard Ferguson attempts to get out the message that the player has apologised to the manager, the club and the fans, including the desperate souls who less than 24 hours earlier had gathered around his mansion in balaclavas and under the pitiful misapprehension that either he or his agent gave a Marlboro dog-end for their feelings.

Rooney, despite operating at by the far the lowest pitch of his time as a professional footballer and a public figure, gets exactly what he wants – a huge pay rise and confirmation that he has to conform to no one's requirements more than his own.

What do United get in exchange for their gift of half a decade of gilt-edged financial security at a time when most of the nation can face the future with only the deepest of trepidation?

They have the services of a player who in the last few days has displayed a lack of any kind of loyalty and respect that might have brought a frown in the meanest back alley – and one whose current form makes a parody of all the hopes excited when he first emerged as a player of wonderful gifts at Everton.

Making the situation all the more perilous for a club already backed into a corner by the bizarre, debt-loaded American ownership is that they have built a monster pile of gambling chips and pushed them all against the Rooney number.

This wouldn't have seemed so risky back when he was filling the vacuum left by Cristiano Ronaldo, and suggesting that he was again the franchise player, the one around whom a new team could be shaped with some optimism.

Now, though, the hazards could scarcely be more apparent. It is not just that Rooney has fallen from grace in all aspects of his life and game. Bad stuff happens, of course, but the worry is the extent of the fall. It has been so vertiginous, so profound, that you have to be living in happy land not to worry there may be more than a hint of a potentially progressive decline.

Perhaps most amazing of all these last few days has been the ability of Rooney and his people so completely to bury the issue of his situation. If you came in from another planet you would be excused a whole series of conclusions utterly at odds with reality.

You would see a giant of a footballer taking hold of his own destiny, saying that he could no longer tolerate the imperfections around him. You would get the sense of some ultimate professional, jealous of his position in the game and his standing in society, pushing and prodding an antique football man who had lost the drive to win.

You would imagine that here was a super professional laying down his marker.

You probably wouldn't guess that for some months he has worn the sullen expression of a petulant adolescent playing, by some distance, the worst football of his life – and with apparently a complete disregard for the consequences of his behaviour on and off the field.

In the early days the worries were almost entirely centred on his pear-shaped physique. One glance indicated a tendency to put on weight. He was by no means the lithe, spare natural athlete. Some of the stories of his conduct and demeanour leaking out of Goodison Park were not the most encouraging, it is true, but then nor did you have to look at all deeply to see the qualities that persuaded such diverse witnesses as Arsène Wenger and John Giles that here was a player with every chance of joining the great performers in football history.

Yes, Rooney had something that has always been impossible to separate from ultimate football achievement, a natural-born sense of knowing always where to be on the field.

Now there are other, more troubling questions. Does he have the reservoir of skill to carry him through the difficult games, when all is not flowing sweetly around him? Does he have the strength of belief, and the facility of technique, to play his way out of any crisis? Great players invariably do and now, after the last few days, we have to believe that Ferguson, despite all the provocations, still resolutely believes that Rooney remains among their number.

Maybe, maybe not, but it is not hard to believe that Ferguson's commitment makes him the second biggest gambler of the week after George Osborne.

There is, of course, an issue that runs rather wider than the success or failure of the United punt on a player who a mere 48 hours earlier had made matchwood of the image that the club has been projecting, mostly successfully, for more than half a century. It has been one that portrays United as a club of values and mystique. The mystique was made by blood and glory and, by and large, the most fastidious adherence to football of the most pleasing, and often, beautiful type. The values, real or imagined, this last week have been bundled like rags on to a bonfire not of vanity but main chance greed.

No one player is bigger than United is an article of faith that has been intoned unremittingly down the years – not Best or Law, Cantona or Beckham – but how does the claim stand this morning? It is in tatters.

Wayne Rooney is bigger than United now despite the fact that he has behaved without the slightest deference to his own or the club's reputation.

In some quarters there has been the parrot cry that he has merely been exercising the birthright of anyone born into a free society. In the crudest terms this is correct, but what kind of free society are we talking about when Rooney and his agent can, in effect, say, 'These are our terms and so what can you do for us today because the past simply doesn't matter?'

We are talking about the society values of the jungle – or maybe the City of London, values which have created a nightmare for the nation and in football, which is supposed to be about supplying a little romance, a little uplift, an increasing suspicion that it simply may not be worth the trouble, at least not for those who want from it something more than a mirror to every cheapjack tendency back in the real world.

The trouble, of course, is there no separation now. Where, for example, does Rooney get his moral example? From the great names of the game who went before him, who occupied a time when they were treated like so much cattle to be chivvied out of the rights that should have flowed naturally from their ability to fill every stadium in the land? Not now that they have become largely figures not to honour, except on certain sentimental occasions, but to pity, men who are mostly obliged to contemplate an unrecognisable world when they limp to the front doors of modest semis.

Perhaps the men who control the "industry", who have opened the doors to carpetbaggers from every continent, including at least one on the watch list of Amnesty International, carry most responsibility, along with the clubs who turn the screw on the fans as hard as they placate those players they believe they need to stay at the top end of the marketplace.

There is no doubt who led Wayne Rooney by the nose to the negotiating table this week.

It was the agent Paul Stretford, who along with the acquisition of great wealth earned a nine-month ban from acting in that role after misleading a trial set to investigate the means by which he acquired Rooney as a client.

A mere detail this, of course, in the relentless greening of Rooney.

In the end money is all that counts, Rooney and his mouthpiece agreed, and who can say now that they were wrong? They got the dough and almost everybody else the pain. Football, you have to fear, may not have known a more wretched day.

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