Which way Rooney and Derby County?

Derby and Rooney are just playing the game... so lay off

In Summary

• Rooney’s upcoming move to Derby County has received heavy criticism.

• Rooney will make the move in January when his MLS season comes to an end.

Derby County's Wayne Rooney leaves after the press conference
Derby County's Wayne Rooney leaves after the press conference

Jermaine Jenas began his new job as a daily newspaper columnist this week. He was unveiled courtesy of a deal with footie5 from thepools.com.

“Download the app and play...” said a blurb at the bottom of the page. So we cannot have it all ways. It cannot be bad to promote gambling when Wayne Rooney does it, but a justifiable source of income on these pages and beyond.

Needs must, that’s the bottom line. The media — print and electronic, websites, radio stations, television broadcasters and this publication, too — are not going to reject valuable advertising at a time when rates and revenues are falling.

And Derby are going to find a way to recruit and reward Rooney that allows them to circumvent the Football League’s tax on ambition, in the form of financial fair play regulations.

It is not just, as has been said, that Derby could not afford Rooney without sponsorship from a betting company; they would not be allowed Rooney, either.

Buying him, paying him the going rate given his talent and profile, could lead to an FFP infringement and a crippling fine. If Derby’s sponsors, 32Red, pick up the tab, however, that’s different. Any club in the Championship with an eye on promotion will be looking at ways to work around the system.

Derby did before. Last season, they were threatened with legal action by Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson over a deal in which owner Mel Morris bought the Pride Park stadium and then leased it back to the club.

This enabled Derby to post a £14.6million profit in their accounts. Challenged, Morris pointed out the sale of fixed assets is legal and that in 2016, to comply with FFP, a club chose to sell the tax loss from the football club to its parent company, making it revenue. This, too, was legal at the time. That club was Middlesbrough.

So everybody’s at it. Not in a way that is crooked or illegal, they are at it because running a business often requires owner investment and promotion does, too, but the Football League are no friends to clubs who think big.

They have plenty of rules to stop owners stumping up, not so many to guard against those bleeding clubs dry. Now Rooney’s deal has shone an unhelpful light on another revenue stream.

Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert, says gambling advertising on shirts will be banned within five years. So the League pass rules outlawing one form of investment and the government pass rules outlawing another. As of this season, 30 clubs have betting companies as their primary sponsorship source and, as the market is competitive, no doubt the going rate for exposure is high. If that is outlawed, other sponsors may not feel compelled to pay as much.

Morris is not the perfect owner but he does have ambition for Derby. He gave Frank Lampard the manager’s job last season— a smart, progressive, idea that increased Derby’s profile considerably and almost paid off with promotion— and has made a splash again by signing Rooney as player-coach from January.

There is no guarantee Rooney will make an impact from midfield in the Championship, which is of superior standard to Major League Soccer.

Yet, however he fares as a player, Rooney the coach is a fascinating proposition. He has long been an underrated analyst of the game and has ambitions to manage.

Sir Alex Ferguson recalls him trying to guess the starting XI on the eve of matches and frequently getting a little nuance or tactical change correct.

Roy Hodgson often praised his interventions with England, even if Rooney’s growing confidence resulted in his unilateral decision to remove Harry Kane from corner duty mid-match.

Rooney’s return to English football would have garnered almost universal praise, were it not for the involvement of 32Red. Instead, critics were queueing up. The mediocre mind that is Iain Duncan-Smith spoke contemptuously of the amount of money gambling companies were making, no doubt as part of the Conservative Party’s new ‘f*** business’ strategy under Boris Johnson.

Carolyn Harris, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling, asked: ‘When will celebrities realise involvement in gambling is not right or moral?’ as if the famous, not governments, were responsible for Britain’s lax gambling laws.

There were clinical psychologists and academics and anti-gambling campaigners — and victims of addiction — all jostling to voice disapproval of what is a sponsorship deal made necessary by football’s over-regulation.

Yet the reason every newspaper now has a special pull-out in the week of the Cheltenham Festival is to accommodate gambling advertisements. It is enticements to bet, odds and prices that fund it all. Transfer deadline day news on many newspaper websites, for instance, was sponsored by Betway.

So even if Rooney did not wear No 32, the company that is paying for it would still find an outlet for their product — most likely in the pages of the publications condemning Derby’s deal.

Nobody argues the modern shift in gambling habits — equating watching sport with gambling on it, through in-play apps — is healthy. Yet to heap the ills of the industry on one player and his club is a crass simplification. “We are seeing the names of players becoming synonymous with gambling brands,’ said shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan.

No, we’re not. There are too many gambling companies to remember them all and most football fans would not know their Dunder from their Dafabet, their 32Red from their Fun88. It’s a hugely successful but flooded market, so Rooney will become synonymous with his club, Derby, as always, and the maximum publicity his sponsors will extract from this deal is right now, with so much pontification making the headlines.

Interestingly, though, after the friction of last season, there has been a very muted response to Derby’s ruse from their rivals in the Championship.

Might this be because Middlesbrough, Leeds and Preston are also sponsored by 32Red, while Birmingham, Blackburn, Bristol City, Charlton, Fulham, Huddersfield, Hull, Queens Park Rangers, Stoke, Swansea and Wigan also have gambling companies as shirt sponsors and are kicking themselves they didn’t think of it first?