From hero to zeroWayne Rooney’s reputation dropped from saviour to scum in less than a fortnight. NANTHA KUMAR reviews the local backlash over Rooney’s move to work with The Sun and the repercussions that will define his future in Everton.
FOR between £250,000 (RM1.75mil) and £280,000 (RM1.96mil) for a series of stories, a footballer would have expected a better deal from a tabloid – and certainly a player who is currently riding the crest of popularity in England.
Rooney has been justly criticised for his ignorance and insensitivity in agreeing to work with the newspaper by both sets of supporters – from his club Everton to their city rivals Liverpool. For the type of flimsy revelations that he peddled to The Sun – and the small sum that exchanged hands – Rooney and his agents are certainly counting the higher cost of their unforgivable faux pas.
The red-top has not – and some doubt it ever will after their cynical manipulation of the Rooney predicament – been forgiven for its egregious slurs on the supporters of Liverpool in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989.
The Sun accused Liverpool fans of robbing their dead, urinating on corpses and blamed them for the Hillsborough Disaster as the events unfolded at the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday during Liverpool’s blockbuster FA Cup semi-final showdown with Nottingham Forest.
The Lord Justice Taylor Report – following an inquiry into British sport’s worst tragedy – exonerated fans and castigated the South Yorkshire police for the delays in saving the situation. The report, however, failed to take the officers involved to task for their inaction and as such they have been protected against any legal suits.
As the struggle to reverse the miscarriage of justice over the Hillsborough Disaster continues after 15 years, the impact of the report gradually converted a league that was plagued by a poor image – hooliganism and antiquated attitudes in the system and structure were constant threats – into the most marketable in the planet.
By its existence and effect, the Hillsborough Disaster produced the English Premier League and, much later, the David Beckhams and Rooneys of the game. If Rooney, his agents at Pro Active Sports Group – or Formation Group as it will be known soon – ever felt that they owed nothing to the 96 individuals who died supporting their club, they should re-examine the disgraceful manner in which The Sun pounced to push their nationwide circulation on the back of the city’s sorrow.
For far too long, Liverpudlians have led insular lives away from mainstream England and have suffered from ravages of war, economic decay, prejudices and Thatcherism. For them to read the grossly shocking accusations – some of whom who were awaiting to receive the bodies of their loved ones and making preparations to pay their final respects – just four days after Hillsborough in the right-leaning rag was to grasp the summit of their disgust for The Sun.
The boycott of the tabloid was enforced and newsagents refused to carry The Sun as they felt the brunt of Liverpool’s anger in the last 15 years. The reported financial disadvantage for the Rupert Murdoch-owned vehicle is immense: from 200,000 copies sold daily, the sales plummeted to 12,000.
The estimated loss is put at £55mil (RM385mil) – and that will not endear The Sun to Liverpudlians or the Rooney camp. The unremorseful tone of The Sun’s full-page apology last week over their Hillsborough fait accompli was interpreted as another unwarranted attack on the people of the city and the dignity of the local newspapers – owned by the parent company of The Sun’s major rivals, The Daily Mirror.
At best, it was very weak attempt at an apology and the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) – one of the two organisations in the forefront of the campaign to unravel the truths behind the disaster – rejected The Sun’s purported apology outright and condemned it as an opportunity to advance their own agendas.
“They are hiding behind Rooney and it will not make any difference. They think that because they’ve got a big name on board people in Liverpool will now start to buy the paper, but we’re not stupid,” the HFSG bristled.
“They want people to forgive and forget. But how can we forgive and forget when we don’t know the truth? They know the truth – and if they want to help us they should tell us who was the police source for the lies they printed 15 years ago,” the body demanded.
Over a week ago, Rooney’s millionaire business manager and founder of Proactive Sports Group, Paul Stretford, declared that his client had not been consulted about the apology after The Sun claimed that the Everton striker was “hurt” by a “hate campaign” against him.
“We all wish to make it clear that the sentiments expressed in The Sun were the views of that newspaper alone and we were not asked to, nor did we, endorse them,” was Stretford’s temporary escape route. But the damage has been inflicted on the image of Pro Active’s prized possession.
It is no great exaggeration to say that Rooney’s descent from every England supporter’s favourite Scouser to scumbag of the city of Liverpool has been nothing short of remarkably swift. If anything, it served the naïve teenager and his unwary advisors a stern reminder against striking all the wrong alliances in the murky world of tabloid stardom.
The damage control exercise was activated in haste. The Sun’s management ponder over a miserably failed marketing ploy to prop up figures in Liverpool and await even more ruin to their risible reputation. After offending the powerful Beckham franchise with their expose on his alleged extramarital flings, the tabloid needed to keep their readers happy with more such sensational revelations – and Rooney fitted into the brackets with his multi-purpose edge.
Meanwhile, the Rooney team was trying to shield him from the repercussions reverberating in Liverpool while he recuperates from his broken foot in Barbados. Rooney’s advisor-in-chief Stretford – who apparently understood the risk of working with The Sun – is another man in need of an image lift in this Rooney Toon Special.
After controversially luring Rooney from his former agency X8 Sports Management Company – he banked on his company’s reputation for marketing and management of some of the top footballers in England – Stretford has laid out the plans to exploit the Rooney persona.
He was given the unexpected incentive of having his blue-chip client emerge as one of the stars of Euro 2004 and it did not take Stretford a minute to devise a media strategy to hawk Rooney as the “Jack the Lad” brand to match that of England’s previous golden boy Paul Gascoigne.
Rooney would be Stretford’s biggest payday and he will not leave any event to chance in his quest to make more money out of the Everton prodigy. The share prices of Proactive Sports Group have been on the decline since they were first issued in 2001 and Stretford needs a cash injection to prop up the value of his firm.
The backlash in Merseyside would be a god-sent excuse for the silver-haired Stretford to learn from The Sun School of Commercial Opportunism and engineer a move to a more glamorous club from one which finished four places from the bottom of the Premier League last season.
Genuine interest from Manchester United and Chelsea – the most financially astute transfer for Rooney – unfortunately has dulled over the weeks while Real Madrid is a long-term possibility. Stretford – who denied on Monday that he was in talks with the Spanish giants – has no other option but to seriously consider Everton’s proposal to make Rooney the highest-paid player in the history of the club.
His client is worth tens of millions in sponsorship deals alone – Rooney endorses Coca-Cola and MasterCard – and any post-Euro 2004 endorsements or two months of his expected £50,000 (RM350,000) per-week wage packet at Goodison Park would instantly dwarf whatever The Sun paid him for a peek into his partially formed life.
Everton manager David Moyes’s critics would now appreciate his vigilant protection of Rooney from the media glare ever since the teenager spectacularly announced his arrival against Arsenal two seasons ago. But the moment Rooney ditched his Merseyside representatives for one of the most influential agents in England, Moyes – and Everton – knew they have lost full control over the player.
Though the club and Proactive Sports Group share the image rights of Rooney – this explains the use of Rooney’s cut-out at the media conference in Bangkok to reveal Everton’s shirt sponsorship with Chang Beer last week – the last piece of advice now rests with Stretford.
Over 18 months, the agent has worked his way into the Rooney household – Stretford also manages the career of Rooney’s model and actress fiancée – and exerts considerable power over any decisions concerning the Rooneys. But whether Rooney will be the next Beckham – the marketing phenomenon – or the wasted talent that was Gascoigne will very much rest with the player himself. And if Rooney is indeed looking for a role model, perhaps the quiet success story of Ryan Giggs would be a good start.