Time to take stock of our role models

The passing of the great Tom Finney offers a reminder that there should be bigger values in football than financial ones

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 2:11pm

When Sameer grows up he wants to be a footballer. So do Matty, Arran, Josh, Shamoon, Oscar, Brad, Oliver, JJ and Farcia.

They make up a group of boys aged between nine and 13 who have been partaking in half-term kick-a-bouts in the local park organised by the author of this column.

Clutching a newly purchased whistle and a ref's booklet containing red and yellow cards, my aim is to try to instil discipline and weed out the worrying number of infringements committed by players so young: the shirt pulling, swearing, dissent and refusing to recover the ball after another selfish shot is sliced way across the vast green towards the toddlers' playground.

These boys don't like to slum it, so bright plastic cones have been deployed as goalposts instead of the traditional jumpers and tracksuit tops; contemporary youth fashion demands that expensive, branded clothing be kept off the muddy ground.

Mention of the seemingly pitiful amount [Tom Finney] was paid - equivalent to about £120 today - for playing professional football drew unbelieving faces and howls of derision

For generations, boys have dreamed of becoming professional footballers and muddy parks have been the theatres in which such fantasies are lived out.

The glamour of lifting the FA Cup at Wembley and scoring the winning goal after dribbling the length of the pitch, the adulation of the fans, the sports page headlines, the post-match interviews ... a Roy of the Rovers dream indeed.

"I'd love to get what Rooney is going to get in his new contract," says Sameer as we discuss the importance of sticking with boring maths and history lessons as "Plan B", just in case the contract from Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea never comes.

The boys nod in an agreement of sorts, but you can tell the thought of another algebra test is being chased out of their minds by images of Rooney signing a five-year contract, worth a staggering £300,000 (HK$3.9 million) a week. It would make him the most highly-paid player in English football history.

Still a hero to many youngsters, Rooney's bargaining tactics must be admired by us sceptical adults, even if we lost faith in his "world-class" ability long ago.

The grotesque and ethically bankrupt nature of the modern game's pay structure makes a mockery of the sport and often makes us fans feel like mugs.

We are partly to blame, of course, as we willingly fork out small fortunes to watch these professional players perform, including those laughably overpriced and overpaid.

The thought that money drives the dreams of young hopefuls makes one despair, and you have to wonder where the game is headed in the generations to come, crass as it so often appears today.

"You shouldn't play football for the money. You should play it because you love the game, like Tom Finney," the young park footballers are told. "Finney only earned £14 a week and he was one of the best English players, ever."

Finney, who died aged 91 last weekend, played in three World Cups between 1950 and 1958. He is joint sixth on England's all-time scoring list with 30 goals, alongside Nat Lofthouse and Alan Shearer.

Preston born and bred, he spent his 14-year career with his hometown club (he had to break from his career to fight in the second world war), and he wore their famous white strip over 400 times.

A quiet and modest man, his humble nature and reputation as a one-club man endeared him to all. He overcame a childhood plagued by illness and at the behest of his dad he completed an apprenticeship as a plumber before signing as a professional.

It wasn't so much that the aspiring multimillionaires in the park had not heard about the Preston North End legend. It was more that mention of the seemingly pitiful amount he was paid - equivalent to about £120 today - for playing professional football drew unbelieving faces and howls of derision.

Finney personified loyalty. He remained devoted to his club until his last living day, which came just as Rooney was about to sign that new contract.

Lost perhaps on these youngsters, what irked wasn't that Manchester United had to buy Rooney's loyalty but that he was willing to sell it.

The name Finney stood, as one obit writer put it, "for grace, modesty and a sense of duty".

What does the name Rooney now stand for in the self-obsessed, moneyed modern game? Finney admitted a few years ago that he had become concerned at some of the trends in English football, especially the erosion of "respect".

But dignified and courteous until the end, he was "too noble of spirit", according to that same writer, to criticise those who can make in a week what he earned in a career.

This year, boys like those passing their half-term holidays in the park will mark the 100-year anniversary of the start of the first world war. They will travel to various museums and memorials to learn about those who made the "ultimate sacrifice" and who stand as role models for loyalty and duty.

Perhaps the EPL and FA should make April 5 - Finney's birthday - an annual remembrance event to remind everyone what football and its players should be all about.