Saturday 18 November 2017

Rooney is a United hero in all but name

Given his success at Old Trafford, it is bizarre that fans hold striker to higher standards

Wayne Rooney. Photo: PA Wire
Wayne Rooney. Photo: PA Wire

Daniel Taylor

It is strange in football, an industry where the super-rich often give the impression that money is how they keep the score, how even the most financially endowed clubs can be guilty sometimes of blurring their priorities when it comes to saving a few quid behind the scenes.

In happier times at Manchester United, when Alex Ferguson and his team were greedily accumulating all those trophies, did you know that England's biggest club wouldn't take up the option to have extra medals made up for its coaches? It changed when Ken Ramsden took over from Ken Merrett as club secretary in 2007 but, until that point, the coaches would receive a few hundred quid as a bonus rather than a piece of silverware that would have felt priceless. Each medal would have cost around £1,000 (€1,135) - peanuts for a club of United's stature - but that, plainly, was too much, and Ferguson's staff went without.

Tony Coton, formerly the goalkeeping coach, tells the story in his autobiography, There To Be Shot At, and remembers it being the "one big regret" of his time at Old Trafford. Coton was there for two Champions League wins, the FA Cup twice, the League Cup and six Premier League titles. The photographs and memories will last forever but it is not the same, he points out, as actually having a medal to treasure.

Then one evening Wayne Rooney struck up a conversation with Coton and Mike Phelan, the first-team coach - "Another one for the collection, hey, lads?" - as the players and staff were out celebrating the 2007 title.

"When we told him about Mr Merrett's medal policy he was outraged," Coton recalls. "He couldn't believe that a club like Manchester United could be so small-time when it came to sharing out the spoils."

When all the relevant people came back from the summer, on the very first day of pre-season training, there were identical packages waiting for Coton and Phelan on their desks at the training ground. Nothing strange there. Every day, a supply of deliveries arrived at Carrington from sponsors and sportswear manufacturers offering freebies and all kinds of other perks. But these boxes were particularly heavy. Inside, each contained a solid silver replica of the Premier League trophy, together with a note advising they were worth £5,000 (€5,700) for insurance purposes. All courtesy of Rooney.

It is a great story. Rooney had just won his first championship medal. He was 21 at the time and, whatever you might think of him, it says a lot about him that it was a player of that age - not Ferguson, a manager who frequently boasted about the way he looked after his staff; not David Gill, or any of the other directors - who decided to do something about it. "We were stunned," Coton writes. "They are absolutely beautiful pieces of work. But for me, their real value isn't measured in monetary terms. It is the fact they were commissioned by Wayne that makes them so precious."

This isn't a eulogy to Rooney, incidentally. Not all of us believe the romantic PR spin about his reasons for rejoining Everton, and his professional life has been a complicated story at times even without taking into account the backdrop to his return to Old Trafford today, with an appearance at Stockport magistrates' court tomorrow morning on a drink-driving charge .

All the same, that story from Coton's memoirs, one of the sporting year's more entertaining autobiographies, does strike a chord at a time when Rooney - often characterised as self-centred and money-orientated during his years in Manchester - is preparing for his first appearance against his old club and we are waiting to see how he will be received.

Warmly, is the most likely answer. Old Trafford is generally pretty good at welcoming back former players and it would be fairly absurd if that should change for a man who, in terms of sheer black-and-white achievement, has more on the board than any of the three men - Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best - immortalised in the Holy Trinity statue on Sir Matt Busby Way. Rooney walks into the away dressing room as United's highest all-time scorer. The room at home where he keeps all his trophies and medals is split over two floors to accommodate such a vast collection. Of course they will cheer him in and out.

At the same time, it is difficult to imagine Rooney getting the king's welcome that Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, experienced when he came back with Real Madrid in 2013 . All of which might seem strange given that Rooney was at the club for longer and won considerably more. Yet not everyone will be on their feet to welcome him back and there is no doubt Old Trafford never warmed to Rooney the same way after his previous attempts to cut himself free.

The dalliances with Manchester City and Chelsea were taken as an affront, and United's support was far too cocky in those years - Old Trafford being the kind of place the author Graham Turner might have been referring to in The North Country when he chided Mancunians for "ridiculous self-congratulation" - to put up with one of the star players having a wandering eye. Especially, if we are honest, when that player's accent was more Jimmy Corkhill than Les Battersby.

Jose Mourinho is right, however, when he says the player deserves the crowd's acclaim now he is coming back in Everton's colours. The good times at Old Trafford outweighed the bad by some distance and it does feel unfair sometimes - a legacy, perhaps, of the player's decline coinciding with the era of Twitter and incessant scrutiny - that Rooney tends to be judged in a way that does not seem to apply to others.

Even now, Ronaldo's name is still part of the songbook at United's fixtures, in tribute to those years when he transformed from a skinny kid with braces on his teeth into one of the world's elite footballers. Ronaldo bedazzled Old Trafford at times. Yet once he was at that point, he also spent a year to 18 months wishing he was not there. His behaviour was appalling at times and there are still plenty of us who remember the numbing experience of him turning up, dressed head to toe in white and looking, frankly, like he had seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice, to interrupt a press conference at which the survivors of the Munich air disaster were commemorating its 50th anniversary.

One by one, those men had turned up to speak with great dignity and obvious emotion about the tragedy that shaped their lives. After them, it was Rooney's turn to offer a modern-day perspective and, though it wasn't his specialist subject, he had spent the previous night reading up about it and handled the questions with a lot more grace and eloquence than some people might imagine. Then Ronaldo appeared at the door, rapping his knuckles on the window and whistling impatiently, in the manner a farmer might beckon a sheepdog. He wanted a lift home and, banging his watch, he did not care who knew about it. It was a dreadful little cameo.

Ultimately, though, Ronaldo is cherished at Old Trafford because of the times he made the crowds quicken their step on the walk to the ground. Best is remembered for the excitement he brought to people's lives rather than the lost nights, the abandoned professionalism and the fact he first walked out on United at the age of 26. It is Law's goals that are revered at Old Trafford; nobody really remembers the time he was transfer-listed after threatening to walk out unless he received more money.

And maybe in time Rooney will be remembered purely for his achievements rather than everything else that tends to stick to him.

Observer

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