Rooney, Gazza and their kind

Alcoholism destroyed George Best, arguably the finest of all post War English players and also Paul Gascoigne. Wayne Rooney, equally talented and volatile, might probably keep his money and his sobriety, writes Brian Glanville.

Rooney the recidivist. The word which categorises those who repeat their offences. And by Rooney's explosive standards, shouting the “f” word into a television microphone at Upton Park after rounding off a splendid hat-trick with a goal from the penalty spot, this was relatively minor. It was wholly gratuitous, but also dismally typical. Hardly though to be compared with his sustained outburst of 27, count them 29, expletives in the ear of the referee, Graham Poll in a match for Manchester United against Arsenal at Highbury. Curiously enough, Poll has put it on record that deciding not to send Rooney off was one of the best if not the best decisions of his career. Though, with the passage of time, he has qualified that by agreeing that he may have been wrong. For some obscure reason, he seemed, at the time, to believe that abuse offered to a referee should not be punished.

In South Africa, at the recent World Cup, Rooney swore at a local referee in a pre-tournament friendly, and swore at England fans as he came off the field after a truly dismal England draw against Algeria. Off the field, his record is hardly that of a so called role model. As a teenager in Liverpool, where he made a scintillating start as a striker in the colours of Everton, he was known to visit a house of ill fame of sordid characters enjoying, if that be the word, the favours of an elderly woman locally nicknamed Old Slapper. And not long after the last World Cup, his financial situation having exponentially improved, he was revealed at having twice, in a deluxe hotel, had converse with an expensive prostitute.

One's mind turns to a famous essay by the incomparable George Orwell who had little time for football, called Benefit of Clergy, discussing the tendency of famous artists being exempt from moral strictures. “If Shakespeare came back to earth,” he wrote, “and we found that his favourite vocation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we would hardly encourage him on the grounds that he might write another King Lear.”

So how far should we forgive Rooney? On this, the latest occasion, the Football Association, who tolerated his excesses in South Africa, this time were less in indulgent, banning him for two matches, that included the crucial FA Cup semifinal derby against Manchester City at Wembley, they turned down his appeal, to the anger of his manager Alex Ferguson. The same Ferguson who, a few weeks ago, when Rooney drove his elbow into the face of Wigan's McCarthy and still stayed on the field, sneered at the officialdom that he should have been punished.

Rooney on the field is immensely talented and off it he is hugely well paid; at something like GBP200,000 a week, having last summer won a wage battle against Ferguson and United, threatening to leave the club, until he was given his enormous salary. As a player, he has balance, courage, super skills, anticipation, power and awareness.

Paul Gascoigne, when he played, had most of these qualities, too, but alas he went through all his money, into poverty and alcoholism. Today after infinite vicissitudes, numerous visits to the Priory for psychological treatment, troubles with the police for drunken driving, a harrowing divorce from a wife, whom he notoriously beat up. Though, when he was playing in Rome for Lazio, he was known to go into the centre of the city with her and spend GBP30,000 on clothes. Which alas were promptly stolen from his villa on the outskirts of the city. Whatever his excesses, the Lazio fans loved him. He was notorious for his practical jokes but also for his excesses on the field.

Playing in the FA Cup Final at Wembley for Spurs against Nottingham Forest he went into a gratuitous and appalling tackle on the opposing full back Ray Charles, only to injure himself, rather than his opponent severely putting himself out of the game with a damaged knee for a year on end.

Yet what a talent: I'd categorise Gazza and Rooney as the two most talented English players of the last few decades and, perhaps, even more. Off the field he had the attention span of a demented gnat, but on it, his awareness and originality were remarkable. Before one game for Lazio, outside the Olimpico Stadium, he belched into the microphone extended to him by a television reporter. “To know why Gascoigne did this,” pronounced Walter Zenga, Inter and Italy goalkeeper and ever loquacious, “we would have to get inside his head.” Once there, I wrote in a newspaper column, we would find on one side a bright football brain and on the other, shade of what Groucho Marx says Chico in one of their films, “Barbell, you've got the brain of a four year old child and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.”

Yet here's a dramatic difference between Gascoigne and Rooney. Rooney failed miserably in the 2010 World Cup and — though not fully fit had a dismal enough time in Germany, four years earlier, getting himself sent off in England's final game against Portugal. Gascoigne excelled in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Even his tears, when booked in the semifinal against Germany, in Turin, when he thought it would exclude him from a final which England in the event, wouldn't reach, made him a national treasure.

Gascoigne, slimmer by far than in the past, insists that he has now got over the demon drink and is due to tour the country in a double set with Jimmy Greaves, himself once a major star in English football, who battled courageously, finally with success, with his alcoholism. But Greaves, whom I've known for many years, is sharp as a tack, Gazza thick as a plank. What kind of act, they possibly make? Hardly one as successful as that which, for some years ago formed with the former Liverpool and Scotland star, Ian St John, a highly fluent and intelligent figure.

Alcoholism destroyed George Best, arguably the finest of all post war English players, whom I knew, liked and admired, since his teenaged years. “He had been born ugly,” he once said, “you'd never have heard of Pele.” Yet despite his intelligence and humour, drink finally consumed him, too. At least Rooney will probably keep his money and his sobriety.