Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Rooney saga: what goes around comes around?


Following Rooney Week earlier in October, when the Manchester United forward went from publicly requesting a move away from Old Trafford to signing a new five-year contract at the club within the space of 72 hours, the fallout from those days’ events lingers on.

Rooney is likely to be out of first team action for longer than expected with an ankle injury – sustained after a training-ground tackle from Paul Scholes – that was evidently much easier to diagnose than the one his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, alleged the player was already carrying, a verdict that Rooney contested. For as long as the forward is injured he will be unable to break a scoring record that stands at no goals at club level from open play since 30th March. Despite the player’s abject form and his dissent over the strength of United’s squad and the need for new signings, however, Rooney was rewarded with the lucrative new contract (estimated to be worth in excess of £40m to the player in wages) that some claim his rebellion to have been about all along. Meanwhile, in Saturday's programme notes for the Premier League game against Spurs, Ferguson conceded that any club wanting to win the title would have to finish in front of Chelsea. The implication was that United have fallen behind their rivals, just as Rooney had implied.

If Rooney’s tantrum was primarily motivated by money rather than the concern of an ambitious professional footballer who believed his employers’ fortunes to be on the wane, and I believe that it was what Manchester City would have been willing to pay the player – and what this move would have earned the player’s agent in commission – that triggered the events of a fortnight ago, then it is worthwhile remembering a couple of other footballers in United’s history who were also involved in controversial episodes regarding player pay. The history of player wages is a topic that fascinates me and one that is likely to form a key part of my ongoing doctoral research into football writing.

In a period of football history well-populated by extraordinary wide players, Charlie Mitten stood out as a flamboyant left-winger during the early years of the Sir Matt Busby era at Old Trafford. Mitten was part of the United side that beat Stanley Matthews’ Blackpool 4-2 in the 1948 FA Cup Final and also finished second three years running in the First Division. Along with Jimmy Delaney, Johnny Morris, Jack Rowley, and Stan Pearson, Mitten formed part of the ‘Famous Five’ who made up the club’s quintet of attacking talent. The winger’s showmanship on the pitch, which inevitably endeared him to United’s fans, betrayed an individual streak in off-pitch matters too, and so it was that in 1950 he shocked austere post-War Britain by signing for the Colombian club Sante Fe of Bogota.

The move saw Mitten trade his £8 per week wages with United for a £10,000 signing-on fee and a huge new salary. The drawback was that Colombia had had their FIFA membership cancelled because of their renegade domestic league and in England Mitten went from being seen as ‘Cheeky Charlie’ to ‘The Bogota Bandit.’ When the money in Colombian football collapsed eighteen months later, Mitten returned to United (who still held his registration) but was suspended by Busby for six months and then sold to Fulham. He would never play for England.

Almost half a century before Mitten was vilified for leaving United for foreign riches, though, the club had profited from another player becoming embroiled in a furore about wages – albeit with a bit of bribery thrown in too. Following the final First Division game of the 1904/05 season, title-chasing Manchester City’s free-scoring winger Billy Meredith was accused by Aston Villa captain Alec Leake of having offered him £10 to ensure that Villa lost to the team in blue. Villa won 3-1 and City finished in third place, but worse was to come when Meredith was found guilty of the bribery allegations by the Football Association, fined, and banned from playing for a year. With Meredith pleading his innocence and the club refusing to pay him during his suspension, the Welshman’s reaction was to expose the common practice of clubs giving illegal bonuses to players to push their earnings above the maximum wage. “What was the secret of the success of the Manchester City team? In my opinion, the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week,” Meredith claimed.

Following an investigation by the Football Association, it was found that City were topping up their players’ wages in an underhand way. In a peculiar development, they were ordered to sell their squad at an auction at a Manchester hotel. Meredith was among the group of four City players acquired by United; two years later, in 1908, the club swept to their first league title in some style. Manchester United had been formed just six years previously when debt-ridden Newton Heath were saved from liquidation and renamed. During their short history, however, United had already been hit by scandal themselves. The consortium behind the takeover included the club’s then-captain, Harry Stafford, who was later suspended by the Football Association in 1903 after allegations of undeclared payments to players. Stafford never played professionally again.

It is extremely difficult to reconcile the era of football that we live in, when the monthly wage of a player such as Wayne Rooney can approach £1m, with times fifty or even one hundred years ago when footballers’ earnings were deliberately held at a level sufficient enough to seem lucrative by working class standards alone. Financial security for life can be achieved by most Premier League footballers in one season, whereas players like Mitten and Meredith had no such guarantees. A tackle or a contract dispute could not only end a player’s career back then but, if they were rendered unfit for physical work or lacked the technical skills needed for a trade, leave them destitute too.

What has remained a constant over the decades, however, is that indignation from fans towards players who choose lucre over loyalty exposes the fundamental difference between the two groups’ respective relationships with their club. Fans are loyal to the club; players are loyal to the club's money. The sombre truth for Manchester United fans is that Rooney’s new contract protects his resale value to his cash-strapped employers more than it secures his status as a United player. Even harder to take is the feeling that, were Rooney to defect next summer and – along with Carlos Tévez – help City to win their first top flight title since 1968, those in the blue half of Manchester would see the triumph as poetic justice for that infamous player auction in 1906.

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