The White Pele
It's a strange thing being a football fan. I grew up watching Manchester United and Bury. My parents couldn't afford to take me to Old Trafford every other weekend (nor could they get tickets even if they could have afforded it) so after winning a free ticket to Gigg Lane, home of Second Divison Bury FC my home-town team, we became season ticket holders. For about 5 years. We'd follow the team all over the country, home and away, week in, week out. Even now, when I hear the name of a random English town like Mansfield or Peterborough or Brentford, I think about it in terms of their shitty small-town stadiums where I might have ended up with my picture in a national paper wearing my football-shaped hat (true) or my Dad might have been smashed in the face with a football during the players' warm-up session (also true). I loved it. We all did.
But deep down I was a United fan. My Dad grew up in Stretford, in the shadow of Old Trafford's famous Stretford End and he watched United when they first were great. He watched as, from the ashes of the Busby Babes and the horror of the Munich Disaster, Sir Matt Busby built a team around Best, Law and Charlton and achieved his ultimate dream of winning what was then called the European Cup, defeating Benfica at Wembley in 1968 (a game my Dad missed after being warned not to attend by his schoolmaster as he had exams coming up, a story which I always found tragic, and still do). My parents even met while watching them play. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Manchester United.
At a similar age as my Dad had been in '68, I watched as Alex Ferguson, inspired by the legacy of the recently deceased Sir Matt Busby, built a team of kids around the Nevilles, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the rest who dominated the 90s, winning Premiership after Premiership, culminating in the the magnificent treble of '99, defeating Bayern Munich in an incredible final to take the European Cup, now called the Champions League. I will never forget that day. It was one of the happiest of my life.
I love Manchester United. My blood runs red. Maybe yours does too, but mine has white shorts and socks. Of course I am biased, but I think Alex Ferguson has built a club around loyalty, integrity and decency. Some of the more unsavoury aspects of modern-day football have been largely absent from United and, when things like play-acting, infidelity and the rest have reared their ugly heads, Fergie has stamped them out quick-style. Even David Beckham, despite his mostly clean-cut public profile and unquestionable effort and talent on the pitch, was deemed surplus to requirements as his rapidly increasing profile didn't sit well with Sir Alex and he was carted out to Madrid. Similarly, Paul Ince, the self-styled Guv'nor (and a man who I once put down on a primary school project as my greatest role model, slightly upsetting my father) was considered too big for his boots and sent off to Italy, Roy Keane was too disruptive and sent off into retirement (well, the Scottish Premier League but it's essentially the same thing) and Jaap Stam, a fantastic footballer, was sold prematurely when he fell out with the manager. My point is that Sir Alex Ferguson believes that Manchester United the club will always be the most important thing, and he will always do the best thing by the club. He has an outstanding record of looking after talented young players (Giggs, Beckham, Ronaldo and, of course, Wayne Rooney) and because of this he demands - and receives - tremendous loyalty. Look at the players that have stayed there for their whole careers. An unusually high amount. And look how many players leave because they actually want to. The number is tiny.
But we can add to that tiny number one Mr Wayne Rooney. A man who, this week, has admitted that he wants to leave Manchester United because they 'lack ambition'. Manchester United, winners of 11 out of 18 Premier League titles, Champions League finalists twice in three years winning one of those times, finalists and winners of countless national cups over the years and consisting of some of the best young talent in world football, 'lack ambition'.
Rooney has had a difficult few months, and I have watched in something approaching horror as he has capitulated from a 34-goal-a-season machine - who I once admitted to being gay for - into a liability. He started off by criticising the England fans at the World Cup, then was photographed smoking and taking a piss behind a club in Manchester, then came the revelations that he had been shagging prostitutes on the regular while his wife was pregnant with their first child and finally, a huge drop in form. Through all this, the United fans stuck by him. He was the 'White Pele'. A player that was born to play for Manchester United, who always gave 100%, who chased down every challenge, who seemed to play football simply because he loved to do so, who scored one of my favourite goals of all time. The lifestyle choices were disappointing, but I couldn't stop loving the press conferences with Fergie where he'd talk about Rooney nagging him to play or begging him to let him be captain - Fergie always had this smile on his face when he talked about Rooney, like he was an annoying little nephew or something. It was clear he was fond of him.
So to watch his press conference, where a genuinely upset and confused man, a footballing genius who had turned a promising young footballer into a world-class talent, tried to explain why his protege wanted to leave him, was heartbreaking. And to read Rooney's statement, where he seems to cast aside the love and affection that has been lavished on him from the terraces of the most wonderful stadium in the world is heartbreaking as well. Fuck him. He doesn't deserve that love. He doesn't deserve to wear that red shirt of United if he thinks we're not ambitious enough. We're too ambitious for him. Manchester United is far bigger than Wayne Rooney will ever be. He could have been a hero in Manchester. We'd forgotten that he was an ugly scouse scrubber. He was on his way to being a legend. He was almost definitely the next captain. He could have broken scoring records, and one day be mentioned in the same breath as Charlton, Robson, Giggs, true gentlemen who knew what it meant to wear that shirt. But he threw it away.
I don't know where he'll go now and I don't really care. If he ends up at City, which it looks likely he will, it will be the ultimate betrayal, but I don't think that it would hurt United fans much more than it already does. Football is obviously changing. Perhaps it is the case that United won't be the dominant force in Manchester that they have been during my lifetime. But at least we will continue, while Sir Alex Ferguson remains at the helm, to play with honour, integrity and respect. And with players who want to wear that beautiful red shirt. He doesn't deserve to. He's disappointed me so much. I honestly thought he was different. The last of a dying breed. But he's just the same as the rest of the new generation. A scumbag.
And that's why it is so strange to be a football fan. I don't know Wayne Rooney. He doesn't owe me anything. I don't know Alex Ferguson. He'll never know how much I respect him. But I still feel that Rooney has let me down. And he has abused the respect of Sir Alex Ferguson. I don't think any United fan will ever forgive him.
I'm off to the pub to watch my heroes play football. And I'm glad that Rooney won't be among them.
Love, Smithy x
Posted by Smithy at 21.10.10