Fans' approval is nice but they don't sign the cheques
Hurt, betrayal, disappointment, disillusionment. Just a few of the supposed reactions to Wayne Rooney's recent conduct among fans of Manchester United. However, opinions as to how he redeems himself don't seem quite as varied. The consensus appears to be that all will be forgiven once he returns to form. To many, it's that straightforward.
In response to months of jeers and boos, a team-mate of mine adopted a novel enough approach to show he remained unaffected by it all. He wrote how he felt on his warm-up t-shirt and ran onto the pitch. It helped win many of his detractors over instantly and they seemed to go easier on him from then on. His message was clear: "No-one likes me. I don't care."
It's not how most lads would have handled the scenario. It certainly wasn't my way when it happened to me, and if sections of United fans get on his case, I dare say it won't be Wayne Rooney's either.
The idea that outraged fans can be appeased by a run of goals is exactly how Rooney and those advising him will see things. His statement, transfer request and supposed desire to defect to Eastlands will be forgotten if he scores the winner in a game that matters. Footballers think in those terms only. But there will be many United fans who may never think of Rooney in the way they once did. The damage is done in their eyes, and it will need more than a few well-timed goals to reverse it.
How he copes with it all, though, is a lot less straightforward. The opinions within any squad about fans and their views can be complex enough. Most players will insist they couldn't give a toss for the views of the fans and react with disdain to any criticism from those who have never played professionally. There is a hierarchy when it comes to feedback in football, and supporters are nowhere near the top. That's what most will say, but I suspect it doesn't entirely reflect their true feelings.
Sitting with your head in your hands bemoaning a lack of support from the fans is something you'll rarely see in a dressing room. It's seen as a weakness to appear as if it affects you, so it's far easier to stick to the jack-the-lad reaction and laugh it off dismissively. But if my experience is anything to go by, players know the value of a supportive crowd, even though some cope fine on their own without one.
I had spells where our own fans turned on me, others where they were largely indifferent, and many when they were clearly on my side. My feelings in response ranged from utter contempt to genuine warmth. Hatred never featured, though many experiences would have justified it. The best it ever got was a realisation that what I was doing on the field met with their approval, though I was all too aware that could change very quickly. Their support was something I learned to cope without, but realised how easier life became when things improved.
Getting slaughtered by fans certainly affected my confidence, but then I had little of that to begin with on my best of days. I was never comforted by a generous wage packet but cannot imagine how one would have lessened the feelings that arise from thousands of grown men ridiculing my every move. It was something I grew to accept and expect for a considerable period. Central to my preparation for matches was an acknowledgement that it would not be enjoyable. My previous performances had caused this, so perseverance was my only option. Along with convincing myself the fans' views were irrelevant, I had little alternative. It was necessary to do the job I was paid to do. For that period, a job was all I felt it was.
In every interview, I stuck to saying what I knew I was meant to say. Unlike Rooney's comments walking off the pitch in the World Cup, I never responded in the way I wanted to. In the dressing room we would all agree that they were to be ignored and agreed that they were clueless anyway. Deep down though, I was desperate for the boos and jeers to stop. Maybe it was ego, maybe it was just embarrassment, I don't know. I could deal with away fans hammering me. Home fans doing it hurt like hell.
If players really didn't care there would be no badge-kissing. There would be no declarations of thanks and love from players keen to hood-wink fans into believing genuine affection exists where it clearly does not. There would be no antics just to impress those watching, but in the dressing room this is never acknowledged.
Rooney himself has said very little. A few brief comments in the controlled environment of the MUTV studios are all we have heard from him. As expected, his return yesterday was greeted by both cheers and jeers at Old Trafford. Some will make him earn their support all over again, but for others it was business as usual. He will cope with anything, but knows how easier life will be if it goes back to how it was.