Taylor Parkes reads a controversial and much-delayed book on England's key player and tabloid star. And then wishes he hadn't

It’s known on the back pages as a “moment of madness”. Probing the Church of Scientology on behalf of the BBC’s Panorama, John Sweeney – investigative journalist of some repute – is harassed by sharp-suited goons. No surprise to anyone familiar with that organisation, but too much for Sweeney, who blows his top.

It’s easy to speculate that this now-legendary loss of composure – preserved on YouTube in all its pop-eyed glory – is what first attracted our author to his subject. Two burly, balding men, united by a shared inability to withstand mind games without paroxysms of self-defeating rage. Whatever, the fame it’s conferred upon John Sweeney won’t have hurt with promoting this, his first sports biography.

In fact Rooney’s Gold was due to be published several years ago, but has been held up by objections from Rooney’s lawyers, or rather those of his agent Paul Stretford, whose legal calamities are covered in great detail. This courtroom drama is the centrepiece of Sweeney’s book, and anyone keen on cross-examination will enjoy those chapters greatly. The problem is, while digging is what Sweeney does best, the stuff he turns up is for the most part neither revelatory nor even terribly interesting.

The court transcripts reproduced here do reflect poorly on Stretford, and suggest that his then-employee Kenny Dalglish (who refused to testify in court) might entertain some unusual friendships. Mostly, they just confirm what we knew: that Wayne was poached by Stretford’s agency; his former owners cut up rough; that some interesting characters became involved (several glowering hoods and a bent solicitor named Kevin Dooley). Much of the dirt in Rooney’s Gold has already been covered in Football And Gangsters by Graham Johnson (reviewed in WSC 238, and a major source for Sweeney’s book); much of the rest is underwhelming.

So we’re left with another book about Wayne Rooney, from a writer especially ill-suited to the task. While I don’t doubt that Sweeney enjoys his football, he’s no Hugh McIlvanney, and while his roots may be in Liverpool he doesn’t exactly smell of the street. He certainly seems quite awkward writing about Rooney’s background and high-gloss lowbrow lifestyle.

Sweeney tries so hard to avoid sounding snooty that his arse almost bursts through the top of his head, but as he waxes lyrical on Croxteth – the grim suburb from which Rooney emerged – there’s always that sense of bemused distance, as though describing some distant tribal region, or the moon. Sometimes it seems his brave sojourn in the dark lands of English football has instilled a sense of White Man’s Burden. As he drops in references to “the posh blokes with wigs on their bonces – they call themselves lawyers”, or explains to his readers that the word hagiography (which this book isn’t going to be, apparently) is “fancy talk for arse-licking”, you have to wonder who he thinks he’s talking to.

All that research time elbow-deep in red-tops has evidently left its mark. While Sweeney is refreshingly chivalrous about Coleen, and keen to point out that there’s actually no evidence that Punter Rooney ever slept with that “PVC-clad granny”, references to “tarts”, “whores” and “slappers” dot the text with unnerving frequency. Indeed, much of Rooney’s Gold reads like a bad parody of tabloid journalism (right down to that irritating habit of referring to his subject as “Roo”). Wayne and Coleen bond over their love of Grease, and she offers to lend him her copy of the video. Sweeney chimes in: “It was as good as her saying ‘I’m hopelessly devoted to you’.” There’s loads of this kind of thing. It’s unbearable.

Then again, his own style is still more grating, from the opening line: “The English like their lions rough, not smooth.” A vivid but somewhat perplexing image, that. Anyone struggling through to the end is rewarded with this, on the final page: “Come the World Cup, let’s hope he kicks the ball. (And not the balls of another player.) Let’s hope he’s on fire. (But not arrested for arson.)” Should I ever start my own lucrative pseudo-religion, I shan’t bother with brainwashing – I’ll read to my victims from Rooney’s Gold until out of sheer desperation, they start praying to my many-elbowed pigeon god.

Thanks to Sweeney’s reputation, some may expect something special, a work of quality amid back-page hack-jobs and authorised whitewash. In fact for the most part, this is just the usual rubbish, all the more dreadful for its author’s discomfort. It’s really nothing to shout about.

From WSC 281 July 2010

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