Fergie-Rooney spat: Don't mention the money

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.

6 comments about "Fergie-Rooney spat: Don't mention the money".
  1. Kenneth Elliott, October 20, 2010 at 5:13 a.m.

    Sad as it is, you've hit the nail on the head. Perhaps, then, I should be even more supportive of Arsene Wenger and what he's trying to do with Arsenal. If he ever can win, and especially win consistently, then his method will have to be recognized as 'against the run of play', without signing big stars, without the backing of multi-billionaire owners. Perhaps, too, it's time for the major leagues in Europe to adopt salary caps as the NFL has done in the U.S. There is already a working version of free agency in pro European soccer, but not a cap that would quite probably level the playing field for teams. The cost will be that no longer will Man U, Chelsea, Real Madrid, one Milan or the other, Barcelona, etc. rule the top of the tables. Championships will become more spread out as has happened in the NFL. It seems to be a successful formula. The NFL is as popular as ever. But so is the EPL, Serie A, La Liga, etc. What we take from that, perhaps, is that it won't hurt the sport at any rate, and could possibly bring it to new heights.

  2. Kenneth Elliott, October 20, 2010 at 5:16 a.m.

    By the way, a sore point with me IS those overpriced shirts and scarves. Good grief. All I want is the new away Arsenal shirt, but the price is so exorbitant it precludes my budget from ever having room for such a purchase. I have to turn to the cheapo knock offs sold on eBay, but those come in only one, too small for my fat American ass size.

  3. Austin Gomez, October 20, 2010 at 9:55 a.m.

    One correction, Paul! You described Sir Alex Ferguson, the revered Scotsman, in the Italian language as the "padre famiglia" but let us use the proper, accurate Latin verbage: "pater familias." This term now really clarifies Fergie as the reputed "head" of the ManU household, now being upstaged/overturned by this 'MONEY-corrupted/scandalized/non-loyal lout,' Sir Rooney! Interesting how "Sirs" finally cleave and then depart!
    Your Latin language needs correction.

  4. Eric Young, October 20, 2010 at noon

    Paul is wise and I cannot help but agree. The lack of team loyalty by players, though, is what is so sad and unsettling for me. The ManU fans invested in Rooney, and he is discounting them far too easily. But then, I guess he also did that at Everton.

    The problem with great players chasing money--is they don't leave an endearing, or enduring reputation. One will never be able to think of Beckham as a legacy player for Man U--and the same will be said eventually about Rooney when he leaves. He'll wind up being a player that played everywhere during his career. And there is no chance in he'll be remembered for a "career" at Man U. His years at ManU will become a blip.

  5. John Foust, October 20, 2010 at 12:13 p.m.

    Would that all were emotional replicas of Ryan Giggs!

  6. Patrick Gomes, October 20, 2010 at 1:30 p.m.

    It's easy to blame the players for being money-corrupted and mercenary. But the extent of personal responsibility in this is moot in any capitalistic society. Who among us can claim with certainty we wouldn't do the same?

    Kenneth Elliot's point about the need for salary caps seems like the only solution to cap this madness.

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