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Attack of the shopaholic Wives and Girlfriends?

Roy Keane's fiery tirades are often on the money. But he's wrong to blame WAGs for footballers' reluctance to move to Sunderland.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Are footballers becoming hen-pecked softies? Roy Keane thinks so. In a characteristically outspoken rant he described footballers as ‘soft’, ‘weak’ and ‘dictated to’ by their shopaholic wives and girlfriends – or WAGs as they are now better known. His latest tirade against the ills of the modern game has certainly struck a chord with supporters. But is he right? Maybe geography is a factor but it will take much more than a Wearside branch of Harvey Nicks to attract top quality players to Sunderland.

As Kirsty and Phil will tell you, it’s all about ‘location, location, location’. And, unfortunately for Keane, footballer’s wives appear none too enthusiastic about a Wearside postcode. The Sunderland manager launched his withering attack on the character of today’s footballers after being rebuffed by some of his summer transfer targets. ‘We’ve had a player this summer who didn’t even ring us back because his wife wanted to move to London. And shopping was mentioned’, complained Keane. ‘That’s not a football move, it’s a lifestyle move. To me that player is weak… If someone doesn’t want to come to Sunderland because their wife likes shopping in London, it’s a sad state of affairs.’

Keane was widely despised as a player for two reasons. Firstly, in the immortal words of Begbie in Trainspotting, he was a ‘hard cunt’. Secondly, he played for Manchester United. In other words he was a hard Man United cunt and that was never going to endear him to many people. But although rival fans loathed him as a player, there has been plenty of support for Keane’s latest outburst on football message boards. Local MP Sharon Hodgson has also seized on the issue as a prime opportunity to big up the North East. ‘We have the best fans in the country and the North East is an exciting place to live’, said Hodgson. ‘We have first-class shopping, wonderful beaches and countryside – not to mention world-famous nightlife.’ Hodgson’s rose-tinted advert for Tyne and Wear is not only unconvincing, it rather misses Keane’s point. He wasn’t claiming that Sunderland was a great place to live but saying that players should choose a club solely for footballing reasons.

Not everyone agrees with Keane. His complaints about ‘women running the show’ have invariably been branded anachronistic and sexist. Sunday Mirror columnist Carole Malone described Keane as a ‘Neanderthal’ whose ‘views on women belong to the Stone Age, not the twenty-first century’. Malone thinks it is ‘laughable’ that ‘there are still throwbacks like Keane who think men should pursue their careers no matter how disruptive or distressing it is for their wives’. Keane’s views might be a bit unfashionable but it’s not as if he’s advocating wife-beating. How ‘distressing’ can it be to move to a Wearside luxury pad with someone trousering 40 grand a week?

I’ve long been a big admirer of Roy Keane. Why? Because he’s passionate, driven, refuses to tolerate mediocrity and has an unquenchable desire to win. If England had a few players with Keane’s winning mentality we might just fare better at penalty shoot-outs. I also like his uncompromising ‘take that, you cunt’ attitude. Not the breaking opponent’s legs bit, but the fact that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, not to mention ‘bluffers’, a pejorative term that regularly crops up in his autobiography.

Never one to recite the usual vacuous PR-coached platitudes, Keane is always prepared to speak his mind and damn the consequences. He missed out on the opportunity to play in the 2002 World Cup after his notorious ‘stick it up your bollocks’ tirade against Mick McCarthy. Similarly, he was shown the exit door at Old Trafford after a diatribe against the mediocrity of his own team-mates on the club’s normally anodyne MUTV station. He might be a bit of a nutter, but I reckon every club could do with a nutter like Keano.

But, admirable as Keane’s outspokenness is, that doesn’t mean he is always right, nor even that his opinions cut against the grain. In fact, many of the things Keane says reinforce rather than challenge contemporary orthodoxies. His opinions frequently chime with the widespread disenchantment with the commercialisation of the game. Take his famous ‘prawn sandwich’ rant in 2000 against Manchester United’s home fans. When Keane said, ‘I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell football, never mind understand it’, he was merely confirming the conventional view that Manchester United fans were glory-hunting ‘plastic fans’. Similarly, when he complained in 2002 that his United team-mates had ‘lost the hunger’ as a result of ‘Rolex watches, garages full of cars, mansions’, Keane was echoing what many green-eyed critics had been saying: that modern players were overpaid and, consequently, underperforming.

And this brings me back to the WAG rant. The reason that Keane’s comments have gone down well among football fans is that many see players as mercenaries who care more for their celebrity lifestyle than ‘wearing the shirt’. Footballers’ VIP lifestyle is an easy target but, in this instance, I think he’s wrong. No doubt there are footballers who think it’s grim up north and prefer the glamour of London. But I reckon that many players snub Sunderland for old-fashioned football reasons. Put simply, they figure that Sunderland are prime candidates for relegation. The clubs’ last two spells in the top flight were pretty wretched, so who can blame players for opting to ply their trade elsewhere? It’s a problem that all newly promoted clubs encounter. Moreover, Keane’s theory is disproved by Newcastle and Middlesborough, who have been able to attract big name players to the North East. The reasons? Higher wages, no doubt, but also better prospects and the chance to play in Europe.

If anyone can buck Sunderland’s trend to yo-yo between the top two divisions, it’s Roy Keane. But until he can show that the club is going places – and I don’t mean back to the Championship – the top players will choose to go elsewhere.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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Topics Politics

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