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Friday, Oct. 1, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Rooney's debut helps Manchester fans overlook his roots


LONDON -- Mancunians, generally speaking, do not like Liverpudlians and that is putting it mildly. The feeling is also mutual and just about the only thing the folk from the two cities have in common is their opinion of each other.

Christopher Davies

When Liverpool visited Manchester United recently the official United Web site listed some politically incorrect chants about Scousers -- the slang term for people from Liverpool -- for which an apology was issued.

The rivalry between the cities is more than their geographical proximity in the Northwest of England. Liverpool has always had a chip on its shoulder about being in the shadow of Manchester -- whatever the city did, it always seemed to be second-best to the Mancs.

News photo
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, who scored a hat trick in his debut on Tuesday, hails from Liverpool, a rival city to that of his new team.

When Liverpool dominated English and European football during the 1970s and 1980s, United was still perceived to be the bigger club.

Liverpool gave the world the Mersey sound, including the Beatles.

Manchester had the Hollies, yet still Liverpool was not looked upon as the No. 1 city.

The often bitter rivalry has manifested itself in football with some less than pleasant incidents involving both sets of supporters.

United fans love to chant "what's it like to have a job?" at supporters from Liverpool, where unemployment is high. The Liverpudlian response to this jibe could not be printed in a family newspaper.

Not surprisingly, there have been few Liverpool-born players wearing the red of United, with Steve Coppell and John Gidman two notable exceptions but that was 20 or so years ago.

United supporters had mixed feelings when the club signed Wayne Rooney, a Scouser through and through, from Everton last month. Yes, Rooney was potentially one of the best players England has produced in modern times but . . . well . . . he was a Scouser, his accent so thick -- or "tick" as he would pronounce the word -- as to almost be impenetrable.

Even to an English-speaker, Rooney occasionally needs sub-titles.

Also, United had Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Alan Smith -- why would it need another striker, especially one from Merseyside?

United's need was more in midfield or defense, not up front.

Sir Alex Ferguson's view was that when the best becomes available, which is not very often, you don't let the opposition get their hands on that player. Newcastle was never a serious rival to United when Rooney was put up for sale and the 18-year-old became the first Liverpudlian of his generation to move to Old Trafford.

Rooney arrived under a shadow, his private life splashed all over the newspapers including an association with a hooker called the Auld Slapper who was a grandmother. The joke was that Rooney's salary was 50 grans a week.

However, in football most can be forgiven if you produce the goods and Rooney's stunning hat trick debut for United in the 6-2 win over Fenerbahce on Tuesday brought more positive coverage of the teenager.

It was the striker's first game since Euro 2004 following a foot injury and the one-man demolition squad that was Rooney tore the Turks to shreds with his intelligent running and lethal finishing. The Old Trafford faithful even forgave him for being a Scouser -- after only one game Rooney was an honorary Manc.

At £27 million Rooney was already a bargain in United eyes.

Rooney, who lasted the full 90 minutes, thundered home two long-range first-half goals and curled a spectacular second-half free-kick past Fenerbahce goalkeeper Recber Rustu.

Not surprisingly, Ferguson was ecstatic about Rooney's debut, though he added a word of caution about the striker's age saying it should be taken into account.

"Considering it was his first game it was magnificent," said Ferguson. "He tired in the last 20 minutes, understandably, but don't forget he's still a young lad and he isn't over the adolescent stage yet."

Ferguson banned Rooney from talking to the media, continuing his policy of protecting young players from such pressures. Maybe I see things only through journalistic eyes, though surely there is more pressure in playing a Champions League tie than speaking to the media for a few minutes after a match. Then again given Ferguson's record, it is difficult to argue with his policies and management.

Not that Rooney would have said much more than how great -- or "gleat" as he would say -- it was to score on his debut, that United were a "gleat" club and the fans were "gleat."

Given his talent, sponsors should be falling over themselves to sign him up but, unlike David Beckham or other recent England superstars, Rooney is not comfortable speaking in public. His skills are in his boots and we must accept that is where he does his talking best.

Rooney has set himself a standard impossible to maintain, but what better way to endear yourself to your new supporters who were looking at you with a skeptical eye than a European hat trick on your debut?

THE SVEN-GORAN Eriksson to Real Madrid rumors emerged again in the wake of the departure of Jose Camacho. Mariano Garcia Remon was promoted to take charge of first-team matters, but the English media -- some newspapers are obviously determined to do all they can to force the England head coach out of his job -- went to work again.

When Florentino Perez, the Real president, said they were not looking for a replacement from outside, one tabloid ran the headline "Eriksson snubbed."

Not Ferguson, Wenger or any other manager -- only Eriksson was snubbed.

It also seems to have been forgotten that for all the media coverage of his private life -- the Swede has not helped himself in this aspect -- Eriksson has a far more secure job with England.

Four points from its two most difficult away ties, in Austria and Poland, have given England a strong platform from which to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals. Real has had four coaches in the last 18 months, so Madrid is hardly the steadiest of ships.

Apart from doing its best to "encourage" him to move on, the English media is also obsessed by Eriksson's salary with the Football Association, believed to be £4 million.

Quite simply, that is Eriksson's market price. Everyone in every industry has their market price determined by a number of factors, but Eriksson's salary has risen steadily during his career and to get him away from Lazio, the F.A. had to make an attractive offer.

That is business practice whether the media agree with it or not, just as some journalists can demand a higher salary than other reporters.

It is difficult to see Garcia Remon, who a few weeks ago was putting the cones out for training sessions, being the man to lead Real back to former glories. At the same time it is hard to see why Eriksson would see Real as a better alternative to his current job.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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