By Paul Gardner
I must admit, I found Alex Ferguson’s television appearance moving. He was talking to the press about Wayne Rooney. Trying to explain why Rooney wanted to leave Manchester United.
But he couldn’t do it. He confessed, in a totally straightforward, non-dramatic, non-emotional way, that he was bemused ... and disappointed. Possibly, if this had been anyone else, you might have thought that he was on the verge of tears. But not Ferguson. If this was acting, it was a masterful performance. But I think we were getting Ferguson, raw, in this. Genuinely puzzled that any player would want to desert ManU.
There was, too, a quiet sadness to Ferguson’s quiet words. He tried to put over the idea of ManU as one big happy family, with -- of course -- himself as the benevolent padre famiglia. He pleaded, in his low-key way -- look at everything we’ve done for Rooney, everything good … and look at what a great club ManU is, all the trophies we’ve won. Given all that, how could Rooney be so ungrateful as to tell ManU that he wanted to play somewhere else?
Up until that moment, it was perfectly in order to feel sorry for Ferguson, so harshly treated by a favorite son. Well, almost in order. Because Ferguson was playing a game with the press listening to him. For a start he set the rules, and made this a monologue, rather than an open discussion. He refused to answer any questions. And he undermined any sympathy for his suffering by not leveling with his audience.
How genuine can his shock at Rooney’s behavior be when he simply failed to mention the glaringly obvious factor which is at the bottom of it -- and which everyone surely knows to be so: Money.
Ferguson knows this as well as anyone. It was money that brought Rooney to ManU in the first place. Rooney, an 18-year-old Everton player in 2004, was making noises like he wanted out because, he said, Everton wasn’t spending enough money to bring in top players. True. Everton did not have the money. But ManU did. So it paid Everton $24 million and just like that Rooney moved to Manchester. This was Wayne Rooney, Liverpool-born and bred, Everton through-and-through, who had been with the club for seven years, since he was age 11.
He left behind a mass of Everton fans who, had they the means of getting on television to state their case, would have sounded exactly like Ferguson sounded yesterday -- aggrieved and sad, with a feeling that they had been betrayed.
Now it is the turn of the ManU fans to feel hard done by. This will be a particularly black moment for them if Rooney, as is rumored, moves to Manchester City, a club with more money than it knows what to do with.
Money. I’m not at all sure if I know -- or if anyone knows -- whether money is destroying the sport. Consider the EPL. We know that Everton has little money. We also know that Liverpool has huge financial problems. Both teams have a stadium problem. Liverpool, unthinkably, languishes in 19th place among the EPL’s 20 teams. Those are major, major clubs in the history of English soccer. But ManU, which has dominated the English game for the past two decades, is also in trouble.
Ferguson’s 25-year reign is coming to an end. His assured touch that has always been able to convince players that ManU is the place to be is faltering. Last year he lost Cristiano Ronaldo, the club’s biggest star. This was not Ronaldo leaving because Ferguson no longer wanted him (that was the old, arrogant way in which Ferguson got rid of David Beckham and Roy Keane and Ruud Van Nistelrooy). This was Ronaldo walking out on Ferguson.
And now it has happened again. Exit Rooney. It would be easy enough to blame the Americans for this. Both Liverpool and ManU, it seems, have been landed in trouble by American owners. If only the foreign owners had been Russian (like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich) or Arabs (like ManCity’s Abu Dhabi United Group) -- all would be well.
I think not. If Chelsea and ManCity now look like being the EPL’s top clubs it is not the nationality of their money, but simply the amount of it. Promiscuous, unbridled spending is bound to do the trick in the end. If we haven’t absorbed that fact by now …
But, of course, it has not been absorbed. Maybe it never will be, because the sport itself and the fans in particular don’t want to absorb it. They want to feel the warmth that goes with imagining that soccer is an intensely human activity that revolves around its players and their club loyalties.
Rooney is merely the latest of a growing mass of players who have ripped that scenario to shreds. But Ferguson can still go on television and express bewilderment at the injustice of it all.
You have to wonder how much longer this farce can be played out. How much longer will the increasingly silly examples of extreme devotion by fans to their club go on -- you know, all those pathetic scarves, all those dying wishes to “bury me in the club colors” and so on. When will the realization that the club shop is bilking the fans by selling over-priced coffins sink in?
Once upon a time those devotional feelings carried enormous weight, because they conveyed real affection. That was before the money and the marketeers got to work. Now the devotion is exploited by sponsors and ticket sellers, whose attitude to the whole thing can be seen day and night on television in the fatuous, adolescent commercials about “passion” that their idiot creative departments churn out. All of them designed, not to help the fans or to nourish genuine club loyalty, but simply to make those fans spend money on absurdly expensive shirts and, of course, scarves.
No, I don’t like what Rooney is doing. But he shouldn’t be demonized any more than Ferguson should be viewed as an innocent, injured party. Both men are playing out soccer’s end game, the end game of any successful pro sport. The rules of capitalism are inexorable. It is the money that counts. Maybe not immediately, maybe not always. But eventually, either too much money or too little, one way or the other, the money will decide things.