There’s a reason your eyes narrow when you’re angry. It’s a question of focus: by limiting your field of vision, you’re better able to concentrate on the threat, or the target, or the source of your displeasure. Which is probably very healthy when trapped in a duel, or cornered by a tiger, but if you’re barrelling through the football season at one hundred miles-an-hour, chasing rumours and debating decisions and constantly jumping from one thing to the next, then you can sometimes forget that there is such a thing as perspective.
You can get carried away with what something means, and then you forget about it as soon as the next ‘right now’ hoys into view, because your gaze – ever narrow, ever furious – is elsewhere.
With this in mind, you’ll have to forgive me for rehashing a story that most of us were sick of minutes after it began. But Wayne Rooney’s I-do-not-think-the-club-can-matchmy-ambition-therefore-I’m-moving-to-a-richerone-how-much?-okay-you’ve-convincedme-I-love-this-club-and-I’ll-stay kerfuffle last October was one of those moments. Fury, then exile; by the time Rooney came back from Nike’s HQ in Oregon the season had moved on. And while Rooney certainly wasn’t instantly forgiven, the time out of sight and mind had drawn the majority of venom from the atmosphere.
That’s why Rooney was sent away, of course, and by the end of the season, with the striker back in form and with the lid of the Premier League trophy on his head, the whole thing seemed a strange and distant episode that might be best left in the past. But what Bald October offered, in hindsight, was a glimpse into the real workings of football, and of footballers. And more than that, from a Manchester United point of view, it was a moment of sharp realisation. Of sudden perspective. In some ways, it was a loss of innocence.
If growing up means anything, it means the step-by-step dismantling of all those illusions carefully constructed and sustained through childhood. It means the easy assumptions about the workings of the world are torn down one by one: your parents don’t know everything; you are not going to live forever; your goldfish did not go to the Great Bowl in the Sky; the cake is a lie. And footballers, bless them, just don’t love their clubs the way you do.
When Rooney joined United the sense of rightness in the move was overwhelming (not to Everton fans, of course, but I’ll return to that later). He was the next coming of Paul Gascoigne; the player that Sir Alex Ferguson always regretted missing out on. He played hard, strong, attacking football. He had no interest in leaving the North. He hated Liverpool. And the proof that the stars were aligning came with that début hat-trick, which I’m sure I recall provoking one commentator to completely lose the run of himself and wheel out the Duncan Edwards comparisons. It was meant to be. Destiny. Inevitability. The assassin-faced Babe.
And then, seasons and trophies and a personal fortune later, he wanted to leave!
To have been a United fan over the last twenty or so years is to have been largely sheltered from this kind of thing, because success keeps football fans from feeling vulnerable. The fat years have meant that the club is seen throughout the game as one of the natural pinnacles of a career: it’s the big move, the chance to prove yourself at the top level alongside the very best players (and Eric Djemba-Djemba).
Where players have left it’s either been in the best interests of the club or at the imperial whim of the manager (or, in the case of Ronaldo, for so much money to a club with its own unique cachet that it wasn’t really an issue).
Where players have refused to join – Arjen Robben, for instance – it’s been frustrating, even galling, but there’s always been another talent and another trophy to soften the blow. Besides, that’s a pretty limp form of treachery. But Rooney to Manchester City? That was high treason.
And that treason gave us a glimpse of a truth at the heart of football: the relationship between player and club is the same as that between club and player. Each is using the other, and whomever has the most power calls the shots. This is how the game has worked since Jean-Marc Bosman did his thing, if not before.
United, by virtue of success, status and financial power, has been in the box seat for years now, plucking players from virtually wherever they want and discarding them as and when Ferguson decreed. Being a supporter of the most successful club in the country during a period of unparalleled and unprecedented magnificence means it doesn’t come up much, true, but this was an insight into how Everton felt when Rooney decided that he was at a club that couldn’t match his ambition. That couldn’t pay the wages he felt he warranted. Tat couldn’t put him where he felt he deserved to be.
Ah, but he stayed!
That he stayed isn’t the point. Whether it’s thanks to the chasm of debt, or the retirement of Ferguson, or the rise of the oligarchs, or simply the natural decline and fall of empire, there will come a time when Manchester United isn’t “Manchester United.” When players on the outside don’t see United as the peak; when players on the inside look elsewhere with covetous or ambitious eyes.
That’s what Bald October was: a foreshadowing of the lean years that must surely come. Rooney as memento mori, whispering the truth of their own mortality into the ears of United fans flush with years of triumph.
But there is a flip side to all of that. By exposing the pragmatism that underpins the affection that players have for clubs, Rooney, even as he weakened his own emotional bond between himself and the fans, reinforced the bond between fans and the club. It was a reminder that being a United fan is not about being a Rooney fan, or a Ryan Giggs fan, or a Ferguson fan, and it’s not about being the greatest club in the world because you actually are. It’s about being the greatest club in the world even when you’re not, even when the players want out and the results aren’t coming and your young prospects are being winkled out of the reserves by chortling imperialist bastards.
None of that has been the case at United for almost as long as I can remember, and yet, looking back, Rooney’s fumbling flirtation with the noisy neighbours made it all clear. From a footballing perspective, I’m glad he did, but from a personal perspective, it was supremely irrelevant.
There was me, and there was the club, and that was all that mattered, and all that ever would matter. Want-away Scousers, thieving owners, Portuguese prima donnas: they come and they go. United – my United, and your United – abides.
This article first appeared in Rant Monthly Issue 2, September 2001, which can be downloaded here.