It is a result of my Irish up-bringing that Tom Finney was a name I only came to know in recent years. A familial passion for our native Hurling leveraged legend status on Christy Ring, John Doyle and, due to a fevered local pride, the fabled Mick Mackey. These were hurlers handed down to me by my father, he being the recipient of first-hand experience from his own father years before. Like many of their equal contemporaries these were hurlers few remaining had witnessed, but many living knew. Reverential names usually spoken of when wishing to determine the greatest there ever was.
Although football – soccer in this context, lest anyone with a working knowledge of Irish sport thinks I am solely considering Gaelic games – holds sway as the most popular sport in numerous Irish localities, this sense of worshipping the largely unseen is usually attributed to native sport. For many countries football has become a cherished chance for national expression like little else. Yet, to consider the nativity of football, we must consider England and its own sacred figures of reverence. Finney, like Matthews, Charlton, Moore and countless before them are rites of passage for any English youth coming to terms with football. Demonstrations of their importance in our time will usually take shape in statues, the naming of stands or the concentrated determination to never forget, and forever appreciate.
In the week that saw Tom Finney’s passing, an inundation of effort by those keen to offer their insight into his importance paired his inordinate talent for football and life. Unlike those who are venerated for what they have won, Finney’s relatively empty catalogue of medals suggest that his individual ability to impress must have been phenomenal. Yet, it was while reading of his opportunity to play for what were at the time a very moneyed Palermo that a certain sadness took hold. Hardly unusual for the time, a lifetime career in football with Preston North End in the early post-war years was not financially viable enough to halt Finney’s emergence in the plumbing trade when his playing days ceased. From what little I have read of the man, it seemed highly unlikely that he would ever have taken to a loafing lifestyle even had PNE’s pockets been deeper.
In a time where the Chairman and board were God, and the footballers privy to their demands, looking at Finney’s case through a contemporary lens leaves one feeling slightly hollow. While he may or may not ever have wanted for more, he and his kind were nonetheless deserving of it. The continual sense of bemusement that surrounds the wealth incumbent in modern football is only reaching higher peaks from which to be felt. It is my opinion that footballers – and most other sports people of a certain calibre – are worth an escalated wage for the concerto of emotion they occasionally enable within each of us as individuals and a larger collective. Yet I concede that the scale unto which such financial reparation can now reach borders on the obscene. Of course, modern football in comparison to the days in which it offered Finney a living generates wealth unbeknown to previous generations. From Finney’s situation in which money was there but thought too much of to be given to players, to our current situation in which Wayne Rooney this week signed a contract procuring him £300,000 a week, something has been lost in translation between the ages.
The case in which Finney was denied the opportunity to garner an unimaginable financial boost through joining a royally invested Palermo arose due to Preston’s obvious desire to keep him. This bears slight similarity to the current situation of Rooney and Manchester United. Tempted by offers from bluer skies, United were keen to assure Rooney that his future lay in tandem with his present. However, while Finney’s assurance came via a refusal to even consider an outside offer and to leave it at that, Rooney’s wandering glances were only assailed by a generous financial impetus. The dichotomy between what was once the unquestionable power of the club to what is now deemed player power is so vast as to be almost unintelligible. It is the evolution of the footballer from mythic hero to desirable celebrity that has allowed for the pendulum to swing so far to one side.
Is Wayne Rooney, the footballer, worth £300,000 a week for what he gives to Manchester United on the pitch? The short answer is no. In strict money terms, Rooney will now earn ten times more than the average Premier League player. He will have a higher weekly wage than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. On performance alone, Rooney does not contribute ten times the performance of an average Premier League player, nor does he come relatively close to approaching the contributions of Ronaldo or Messi to their clubs, let alone surpass them. What Rooney’s wage signifies is not solely his ability as a footballer, but jointly it is a reflection of his status as a commodity that can be sold. Far from the reported paltry offers from Chelsea in the summer, Rooney’s fame and position as the best English footballer at this moment in time assures Manchester United that £300,000 a week is a price worth paying. Tom Finney was once – and to many it seems still is – England’s greatest footballer. Preston North End needed him for the same reasons – although on a far smaller scale – that Manchester United need Rooney; he brought positive attention on the club. For Rooney, it is the ‘celebrity’ he has yielded from his fantastic talent that has garnered him this incredible wealth. For Finney, superior skill and a culture not yet engulfed by fame allowed his loyalty and ability to be taken for granted.
As this generation and ones before so touchingly paid tribute to a player who was only ever a part of footballing folklore in their life, we saw how one who excelled on the field of play will forever remain there in the minds of many. Advances in technology mean that in another 70 or 80 years, the footballing career of Wayne Rooney and his like will forever be available to whosoever wishes to see it. For the select contemporary few like Ronaldo or Messi, veneration will never cease simply because they can forever be seen. For those like Rooney who touch on the edge of brilliance but never quite enter the fray of the sublime, their acquisition of inordinate wealth will have the opposite effect of what Finney’s trifling earnings as a football did for his legacy. Many who never saw him in the flesh may one day watch Rooney and his like via various recordings, yet they will never know of a heritage in which his name is spoken with reverential awe. Mick Mackay, a hurler whose greatest days for County Limerick came in the 1930’s and 40’s, carried on throughout his hurling career – and continued when it concluded – a job with the Electricity Supply Board in Ireland. Like Finney, Mackay – although quite successful – is not acclaimed because of what he won, but the manner in which he played. While entirely uncertain why either man may have ever had cause to meet the other, they are together one of a rare kind.