6 March ~ For Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney, the build-up to the midweek match between Chelsea and Manchester United was far from ideal. Rooney was spotted last Saturday aiming an elbow at Wigan’s James McCarthy, while Cole had fired an air rifle at a work experience student, Tom Cowan. The media trawled endlessly through the details of both incidents, and although the Rooney case seems to be at an end, Cole’s ticks along with Surrey Police now taking an interest. Not surprisingly, the view from the club is that the events have been “blown out of proportion” along with the threadbare mitigation that the gun did not belong to Cole and he didn’t know it was loaded.
Both cases have been a gift to the media, not just the details but in the chance to spin the stories in a way that fits their broader view of the players and their clubs. As the press would have it, Rooney has been in decline since the summer following “revelations” about his private life, a decline exacerbated by his poor performance in the World Cup. His reaction to each misplaced pass or failure of control is further evidence of his simmering frustration at this loss of form. The thrown elbow was, it seems, just another illustration of the player’s current state of mind.
More than that, Mark Clattenburg’s decision to do nothing beyond award a free-kick tempted Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan among others to repeat the widely held view that Manchester United are treated favourably by referees. Alex Ferguson, in his clumsy attempt to defend the player, simply fuelled the fire by anticipating “a press witch hunt”. And the press didn’t disappoint: here was evidence to support a story of a declining, frustrated player at a club that benefits at the hands of match officials.
For Cole, the suggestion that he “smuggled” the gun into the Cobham training ground in a box is offered as more evidence of a pampered player. Even with few, if any, British based equals at left-back, Cole has suffered character attacks since his comically ill-judged autobiography was published, and he faced further criticism following the breakdown of his marriage. The press used Cole’s gun crime to illustrate further the “turmoil” in which Chelsea finds itself. Overly powerful players are indulged by a manager who “prefers to put his arm around the [player’s] shoulder”; lack of discipline is seen as the main cause of the team's poor form.
Meanwhile, it was widely suggested that Cole's actions could not have taken place at United’s training ground where Alex Ferguson's iron rule prevails. The press would argue that they are simply providing context to specific events, but they are also keeping alive stories of their own creation. Rooney’s elbow could just as easily be seen as an instinctive reaction to an opponent stepping across his line by a player who has had a short fuse throughout his career. Clattenburg may simply have been trying, early in the game, to apply the common sense referees are asked to show, while Cole’s case is just another example of a football culture that encourages players to remain in a perpetual adolescence. It’s less of a story to say that, at 30, he is old enough to know better. Brian Simpson