Tommy Conlon: Size really matters for players hit by status anxiety
The dispute was about money alright -- but that doesn't necessarily mean it was about greed.
Rather it was probably as much about pride, rivalry and competitive jealousy. Wayne Rooney, we reckon, would have been quite happy to toddle along on his weekly salary of £90,000-£100,000 if none of his peers were making more.
He is ranked third in FourFourTwo magazine's latest rich list of Premier League players, with an estimated wealth of £37 million. He has the celeb wife, whose own fortune is estimated at £10 million. They live in the obligatory Cheshire mansion, replete apparently with hair salon, spray-tanning booth and white leather sofa studded with Swarovski crystals. They probably have a bread board fashioned from Italian marble too, perfect for rustling up a few chip butties when guests arrive.
So what more could a man want? At what point in his life did Wayne Rooney decide that a yearly salary of £5 million was not enough? And that he wouldn't be happy until it was nearer £10 million?
When he was on £80 a week at Everton and living at home on a dilapidated council estate, the matter of money was surely more real and more pressing than it is to him today. He didn't have any, he'd lived his life among the urban poor. His burgeoning talent carried with it the hopes and fears of his entire family. When he signed his first big professional contract, for £13,000 a week, it transformed the lives of his parents and siblings.
The one he signed on Friday cannot carry anything like the same meaning. Estimates of its worth vary from £150,000 a week to £180,000, but the sums involved have an almost abstract quality to them now. They cannot change Rooney's life any more than it has already been changed.
But he still wanted a whole lot more. Why? Because modern sports stars, like film stars, have a very fragile sense of 'respect'. The wrong word can be enough to trigger a volcanic tantrum. And when he looked around him he saw that he was down the financial pecking order.
He didn't have to look very far. In his own dressing room, the perennially injured Rio Ferdinand was on £120k a week, and Dimitar Berbatov was strolling around on £100k while he was busting a gut every match for the same, or even less. Among his England team-mates at the World Cup, he'd have known that Steven Gerrard was on an estimated £120k, Frank Lampard £140k and John Terry £160k.
He'd have presumably made allowances for players of that stature. But when he saw bog-standard England internationals like Gareth Barry and James Milner earning £100k each at Manchester City, never mind Yaya Toure on his ludicrous £200k, then it was time for people at Old Trafford to start showing him some respect.
This wasn't about greed for money; if players were paid in pints of ale, he'd have been demanding more ale. It was about alpha male insecurities like ego and status -- and who's the top dog around here?
Rooney said on Wednesday that his big concern was United's declining ability to attract world-class players. "For me," he said in his statement, "it's all about winning trophies." Many observers dismissed this as self-serving spin on his part.
But we're inclined to believe him. He may well be afflicted with the same status anxiety when it comes to trophies. And again, he doesn't have to look very far to feel some envy -- Neville, Giggs and Scholes are way ahead on that score. Rooney is a competitor, he wants to compete on this front too, he wants to have what they have.
Legions of old pros, from Lou Macari to John Giles to Paul Merson, said that Rooney crossed the line when he started asking questions about the club's ambitions in the transfer market. It was none of his business; nobody was bigger than Manchester United; it was taking player power too far.
But the American superstars have been doing this for years. The current king of basketball, Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers, is as powerful in the boardroom as he is on the court. When the
team went three years without coming close to an NBA title, Bryant demanded a transfer. Either that, or they start surrounding him with the necessary talent. It sent shockwaves through one of the most powerful organisations in all of American sport. But Bryant knew where he stood in this power struggle: he had more leverage than the coach, the general manager, and maybe even the owner. The club could not afford to lose him. Eventually they delivered the players who helped him win more championships.
Rooney's decision to sign a new contract on Friday has been interpreted as a climbdown, and another big victory for Alex Ferguson. But the shockwaves were felt at Manchester United too last week; they could not afford to lose their one superstar either. It would have done them enormous symbolic damage; it would've been an admission that they can no longer compete for the game-breakers, those few elite players who can change not just a match but the fortunes of an entire football club, no matter how big.
Ferguson, they say, is the last of the autocrat managers. The era of the autocrat player is coming, if it hasn't already arrived.