Sunday 23 July 2017

Comment - Wayne Rooney is facing a loss that cannot be measured in casino chips

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney

Paul Hayward

At the VIP level of the Manchester casino where Wayne Rooney allegedly lost £500,000 in two hours, there are three tiers of high-rollerdom: “Platinum, Diamond and finally, the creme de la creme, Seven Stars.”

This is a pretty neat metaphor for a life at the top in sport. At your peak, you are seven stars. Over time, you slip to diamond. Age then pulls you down to platinum. And in the end there is no escaping the plunge back to the casino floor, to the world of one-armed bandits and desparados. However brilliant you are, time takes your talent away, like a croupier dragging the gambling chips back to the house.

We are all creatures of our appetites, to varying degrees, and Rooney has never hidden his especially well. There is a kind of heedless honesty about him joining a wedding party at The Grove hotel in Watford, while on England duty, or sitting alone in a Manchester casino playing roulette and blackjack with a bottle of beer or two. Rooney has always been determined to salvage what he can of a normal life, even at the risk of harming his reputation.

The losses incurred on an alleged night of gambling on March 16 are not being disputed. Everyone can wince at the sums involved - £4,000 a minute, according to the Sun on Sunday, who splashed the story - but it’s much harder to imagine the dislocation when a major gift is stolen away from you; when you turn up for work and find that talent fading, or missing altogether, with the world telling you so, often in the most sadistic language it can find.

This is not to draw a direct correlation between the night the Manchester 235 casino took half a mill off the all-time leading scorer for Manchester United and England, and the waning of his career, but you would need to be blind not see an impending storm for the country’s most well-known player.

Rooney has been an automatic pick since he was 17-years-old (except when he fell foul of Alex Ferguson). All through his life in football he has expected and wanted to play. In his company you see a natural self-assurance, self-belief. From the minute he stepped into Everton’s first XI he never doubted his rightful place in the team pinned on the board, whoever the manager happened to be. This was always part of his gravitas. He always felt he belonged in the light.

That belief is no longer sustainable. This season, Jose Mourinho has phased him out. With England, too, Gareth Southgate has shifted him to the margins. Rooney will have understood every  nuance of those two managerial moves.

Despite scoring the last ever goal at White Hart Lane only last Sunday, and passing Sir Bobby Charlton’s benchmarks for club and country, Rooney is edging closer to the end of his time as a top-flight footballer. Beyond China, if they still want to take him as a global name, his options at the top of the European game are diminishing.

You can see it in the slowing of his body mechanics. And you can certainly spot the signs in Mourinho’s selections. Against Spurs he played some nice, hurtful passes in tight spaces and around corners, early in the game. But he is judged against the old dynamism, which is no longer there. This will have hurt him profoundly. It is no surprise, therefore, to see him sending out the occasional distress signal, though he has always been a keen punter, even in the days when no manager would leave him out.

So what is this world he was in, with its familiar pathos of the lone gambler seeking solace in beers and blackjack, while other customers watched him with dollar signs in their eyes (the story-selling sort)?

The Manchester 235 casino is one of eight opened in the UK by Caesars Entertainment - owners of Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood and Harrahs. Until I looked this up, I assumed the £500,000 figure was an exaggeration. In fact, this is a place for high rollers, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, planted in something called The Great Northern Warehouse. The opening hours alone tell you how Britain has sold its soul to corporate-scale gambling, not least in the Premier League, where bookmaker partnerships are endemic.

The idea of anyone losing half a million pounds in two hours sounds crackers until you see that Manchester 235’s VIP code permits maximum stakes of £30,000 on American roulette ‘even chances’ (black or red). On dozens and columns you can risk £15,000 on a single bet. If you feel out of your depth, you can ring the ‘Caesars Social Responsibility Manager’ - but by then it may be too late.

Predicting personal disaster for Rooney when the football stops seems presumptuous and irresponsible. Who are we to say that he will be helpless to temptation when the football machine spits him out? He has free will, and a strong character. Already it is being said that no similar revelations are in the pipeline. But anyone would be shocked by such a colossal loss. The word, too, is that Rooney may this week make a substantial extra donation to his own charitable foundation to balance the books.

In a year or two perhaps he will be another rich ex-pro fighting the urge to eat or drink too freely; fighting the need to replace the electricity of big Champions League nights with something potentially self-destructive. A sod-it approach to gambling in a Las Vegas-level casino is certainly a quick route to that kind of chaos. Rooney has only to look around his own profession to see how reckless gambling becomes a hurricane, erasing all in its path.

On a human level, he is probably long past hoping that the public display any sympathy in his post-playing career, his slide from fame. Schadenfreude has always dogged him. Aside from a loyal band of Manchester United fans, who forgive his wage negotiation tactics, it has often been open season on a player who is universally liked and respected by his colleagues.

It is a curse of fading talent that audiences dwell on its disappearance, not the brighter memories from earlier times. They ridicule and jeer. History is kinder. The correction comes later. Rooney is taking the first steps to a terrible reckoning, a huge personal loss, and nobody can tell him how to deal with it. But a croupier is the last person to ask.

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