Friday 23 June 2017

Vincent Hogan: Rooney saga proves game is now certifiably insane

In The Burton House on Sunderland's Borough Road last Friday night, Bobby Kerr cast a wistful glance back at the side-burn and bell-bottom days of his youth.

It was a journey easily taken, for the pub's proprietor -- 'Lord Hepscott', aka Sammy Doran -- has turned the place into a shrine to the 1973 FA Cup-winning team.

Bobby had Beatles hair back then and that shine in the eye of an athlete who is invulnerable to self-doubt. He was Sunderland's captain and, behind the bar of The Burton resides a photograph of him sitting up in bed the morning after that startling defeat of Leeds United, the famous silver jug on his lap.

On Friday, someone in our company remarked that Bobby looked remarkably clear-eyed and tidy in the picture for someone who, presumably, hadn't got much sleep. And the man Bob Stokoe called his "little general" chuckled that the photograph was, in actual fact, a bit of a lie.

"I've got me trousers, shoes and socks on under the sheets," he revealed to guffaws.

The picture was, of course, made to order for the back pages. 'Bobby wakes up with the Cup.' Just a gentle media conceit, an illusion of intimate access to the big story.

Niall Quinn hadn't yet turned seven at the time of that final, yet recalled watching the game on TV and struggling to rationalise how a Leeds team containing his hero, John Giles, could be undone by such neglected outsiders.

GILESY

"Then again, maybe that was down to what you did to poor Gilesy," smiled the current Sunderland chairman to Kerr.

"Nah," said Bobby, "I was too busy standing on Eddie Gray all day." And a great peal of laughter rolled like thunder through The Burton.

Bobby soon left us for work, crossing the city to the rundown pub he is now trying to breathe new energy and personality into, after a small lifetime of similar resuscitation projects. He is a warm, naturally engaging man who will forever be loved and revered in this hard-pressed city.

And meeting him was a reminder of how football in Bobby Kerr's day was a game that gave players status in society, not separation from it.

For the essential fakery of all the correspondence spilling out of Old Trafford this week couldn't but besiege the spirit. The Wayne Rooney saga told us many depressing things but, above all, it spoke of the terminal cancer that is greed.

Yet, the coverage of the story in England had a slightly juvenile, point-scoring emphasis. Depending upon taste, the outcome was said to represent a victory for either (a) Alex Ferguson, (b) Rooney, or -- most confusingly, through the eyes of Ian Holloway -- (c) football itself.

One of England's most celebrated sportswriters even went so far as to suggest that Ferguson deserved the nation's "congratulations and thanks" for "a victory that was so emphatic".

Victory?

Rooney, whose recent conduct off-the-field would make Rab C Nesbitt blanch and whose performances on it have been essays in surly incompetence, will hereafter be paid slightly more than £230,000 a week over five years, having put a gun to the club's head.

Victory?

Even Ferguson's declaration that Rooney had apologised to all concerned for the crassness of his Wednesday statement that -- essentially -- denigrated team-mates, was surely undermined by the absence of any hint of an apology when the player subsequently spoke on MUTV.

Victory?

Professional football clubs involve themselves in community initiatives and some, in fairness, pay a good deal more than lip service to the idea of a social conscience (something we will return to). But at its highest point, the game is now -- certifiably -- insane.

United's debts rapidly approach £1 billion, yet on they fly towards the sun. Whatever the financial implications of placating Rooney (and the guaranteed follow-on of team-mates responding in kind), nothing became more important last week than the business of saving face.

The power leans so heavily with the player now that even the best-run clubs, those that still sit in their communities as more than money-eating franchises, sometimes resort to the most ludicrous of financial contortions just to off-load players who don't play.

They are there for all to see, the Big Time Charlies with their bored, disaffected, "this is beneath me" countenance, the "can't be bothered" scowl that is aimed only at manipulating a move to greener pastures.

And even the poorest of them, the serial non-achievers, go loping through their mediocre lives with weekly salaries that amount to multiples of what those wearing their names on replica shirts can ever hope to earn in a year.

Wayne Rooney will never have to work after football. He will never have a day when he has to leave good company, pull his collar up against buffeting wind and rain and head off to the far side of town to earn a shilling. Everything he requires will, forever more, be available on speed dial. Good luck to him, but who exactly does Rooney represent?

Thirty-seven years on from his big day, no-one asks that of Bobby Kerr.

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