The competition winner from Surrey, along with her nine nephews and nieces, put the long journey behind them and bounced out of the minibus, goggle-eyed at the prospect of being coached by Manchester United’s wunderkind, Wayne Rooney. The venue, Bobby Charlton’s Soccer School in the Egerton Youth Centre near Knutsford in Cheshire, was unprepossessing but their enthusiasm could not be dimmed and, indeed, contrasted nicely with the hard-bitten cynicism of a couple of members of the Fourth Estate waiting for a promised interview.
We gathered inside for Rooney’s arrival, scheduled at 2.00pm. The children changed into their kit and watched a video of David Beckham, the most famous graduate of Charlton’s school. I had been sent to do the interview by this newspaper to offer a perspective from a different sporting sphere on England’s new superstar and I asked one journalist what the form was. ‘You’ll get ten minutes face to face. By the way, how are you going to get around asking about the sponsor?’
‘Who is the sponsor again?’
‘Would that be the crisps or the sweaters?’ It turned out to be the crisps, but I gather the sweaters are back in fashion and footballers are nothing if not fashionable.
It was now 2.55 and Rooney was already fashionably late, but there was still no sign. Alex, a representative from his agency, came over looking formidably efficient in a pin-striped suit. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘They’ve been held up at Carrington [United’s training ground] and he’s got a bit of a cold and had to see a doctor.’ The extra training, the day after United’s multi-million pound strike force drew a blank against Manchester City, seemed understandable.
‘Will you want pictures?’ she asked.
‘Just a couple during the interview and then one outside where our photographer has set up.’
‘Well, we don’t want any inside. Just some posed ones with the kids outside.’ There did not seem much point in arguing.
Twenty minutes later, Alex’s phone rang. She turned positively translucent as she whispered into it: ‘Tell me you’re joking, right?’
Evidently, the caller was not joking and Alex scurried off into the kind of huddle Michael Vaughan routinely holds before each session of play. We feared the worst.
Then the news we dreaded. ‘I’m really sorry, he’s not coming. Got food poisoning, can’t keep anything down.’ Obviously the cold really had taken a turn for the worse in the last half-hour – surely nothing to do with his reported celebrations at Dwight Yorke’s 33rd birthday party the night before? His agents later said it was a ‘viral infection’. One of the photographers whispered: ‘Happens all the time with ’em, you know.’ Was he talking about PRs in general, or footballers? I assumed the latter.
The children, by now, had been taken out on to the football pitch, and in the fading light they kicked a ball around, cold but still excited and unsuspecting. On the motorway, at four o’clock, I rang the sponsor’s representative. ‘How did they take the news?’ I asked.
‘We’re just about to tell them.’
Earlier, one of the parents had noticed an ageing ex-cricketer in the building and he had encouraged the children to get an autograph. That day, I’m sorry to say, it was all they left with – along with a promise to meet Rooney another day. Strange world, football. Sunday Telegraph, 14 November 2004