There’s a piece of old footage in glorious monochrome which will never gather dust because it’s pretty much always in use. Programme-makers in TV sports departments invariably reach for the clip because it perfectly illustrates how much footballers have changed, how much footballers’ downtime has changed, how much the image of the footballers’ wives has changed.
It shows Bobby Moore breezing into a pub, Martin Peters following behind. Moore at the time is the most famous and most glamorous footballer in the world, certainly as England view the game, and yet here he is, down at the Old Bull & Bush or similar, still in a suit and tie. In one swift and elegant movement, he kisses his missus, greets the barman, orders some drinks, picks up darts and flings them at the board.
Mrs Bobby and Mrs Martin, perched on stools, have been waiting patiently on their men. While West Ham’s captain and ghost-at-the-back-post midfielder fling their arrows, the wives resume their conversation. The state of the Cold War? The progress of the Space Race? The director behind the cameras for this sweet but staged scene will almost certainly have preferred the topic under discussion to be cushions or kittens or the efficiency of the latest front-loading washing machines. The wives are loyal, supportive, deferential and normally they stay in the background. And after filming is over that’s where they’ll return.
Contrast then with now. We know quite a lot about footballers’ wives these days and may have perused their books advising how we can have a better life and better nails. Nevertheless, this from a serious newspaper is a bit of a stunner: “The best day on Twitter of all time.” As is this: “Arguably the greatest thing that has ever happened in the history of the internet.” Meet WAGatha Christie.
This is the quite brilliant nickname that’s been given to Coleen Rooney, Wayne’s better half, following her sleuthery in setting up a sting to unmask the footballer’s wife she suspected was leaking stories about her to a tabloid. With a dramatic pause which was itself quite brilliant – demonstrating that this footballer’s wife doesn’t confuse ellipses with liposuction – she revealed the name of the accused like this: “It’s… Rebekah Vardy.”
Maybe the hyperbole comes tongue-in-cheek but there’s no doubt Rooney vs Vardy is a story of our times, a hilariously hideous pile-up involving three unstoppable forces: social media, celebrity culture and England’s Premier League.
Rooney returns from America to join Derby County in January, the start of the FA Cup proper, and I think we all want the Rams to draw Leicester City, the team of Jamie, the husband of Rebekah who denies being the deep throat for made-up stuff about Coleen going on Strictly Come Dancing and flying to Mexico for gender-selection treatment. But how did this happen? How did England’s Wags cause the earth to shudder and shake so furiously and so frivolously?
I have to say I saw this coming. Writing a book about a Scot trying to follow England at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I was looking for any excuse to avert my gaze from the Golden Generation’s stodgy football, and I was easily seduced by Coleen (then McLoughlin), Abigail Clancy (the future Mrs Peter Crouch), Carly Zucker (the future Mrs Joe Cole) and the Queen of the Wags, Posh Spice. Not literally, you understand, and I wasn’t the only one.
Newspapers quickly appointed Wag correspondents to report on their idle thoughts and shopping excesses. “ENGLAND CRISIS!” screamed the Daily Mirror’s front page halfway through the tournament. The explanation came underneath: “Coleen runs out of clothes!”
The Wags based themselves in the Black Forest spa town of Baden-Baden and one wag – old meaning of the word – dubbed them “on-call sexual helpmeets”. While the players stumbled through their games, the girls worked on their tans. The Football Association thought the Wags would appreciate a privacy screen being erected round their hotel pool. They didn’t, and promptly took it down. After all, there was no point in flying out “tan therapists” from England if the girls weren’t going to be photographed. Or Coleen submitting to pre-World Cup training to determine her most flattering position in recline.
Or her nipping back home to have her hair extensions replaced. Or Posh bringing 60 pairs of sunglasses. Or, at the start of this incredible journey, the girls trying to board the plane with six items of luggage. No point at all.
All of this was faithfully reported at the time and the Daily Star – bringing us the World Cup news which really mattered – calculated that total Wag-spend in Baden-Baden’s boutiques and Bellini-bars in two-and-a-half weeks was £1,034,239.
But they were not at the World Cup to supply mere decoration. Frustrated by a flight delay as they followed the team round Germany, Posh let airport staff have it with both nipples: “You are treating us like dogs!” Since the hold-up was only an hour this seemed like prima donna behaviour. And yet she was being a leader, a winner, and much more of both than her husband. This was the third tournament in a row where he’d failed to turn up.
It took Bobby Robson, pictured inset, to sound a note of caution. “We’re going to war,” he said as the knockouts began. “You can’t fight a war worrying about your wives. Kiss them goodbye and tell them you’ll see them in a month.”
At future tournaments the FA tried to curb Wag behaviour but it was too late, the Bellini was out of the bottle. Wags were already a thing, a phenomenon, a mighty force, grabbing slots on reality shows which stand-ups just out of rehab thought were theirs and hoovering up publishing advances, leaving the creators of painstaking literary fiction starving in their garrets.
It’s all so unlike the homelife of dear Mrs Bobby. “Her Indoors” has now become “Her Out-And-About And Absolutely Everywhere”. These Wags can do just about anything, as Coleen’s gumshoe exploits demonstrate, except perhaps make England winners again.
That’s a wee shame, of course, so we’ll just have to be content with Coleen and Rebekah teaming up for a footballer mansion makeover show or perhaps a bid for the Christmas No 1. Because this catfight isn’t for real, is it?