In Liverpool, Wayne Rooney's world is the Oyster
LIVERPOOL, England -- The bartender's parents haven't come in for a beer today on account of their blistering hangover -- "even Mum," she says. A few Croxteth regulars sip lagers at a pub named The Lobster, most well-known in fancier parts of Liverpool as the place where a guy got shot in the parking lot by street toughs brandishing a shotgun. The furniture is mismatched and the barstools look rotten, and every few minutes, a song plays on the stereo. The first was by the Police, and then after a pause, local son John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." "As soon as you're born, they make you feel small ..."
The No. 14 bus rumbles past outside. It's 3 p.m. on a recent Sunday afternoon, and her folks are still struggling to get out of bed, same as many people in this neighborhood of housing projects and small flats. Last night, their friends the Rooneys had a wedding party, which means complete and utter mayhem. Even with the wealth and fame of England captain Wayne Rooney, an actual working class hero, his large and tight-knit family remain very much a part of their community. They haven't gone Hollywood.
His dad regularly holds court down the road at the Western Approaches pub and a half-dozen (and counting) Rooneys have played for the neighborhood's beloved amateur football team: Oyster Martyrs FC. John Rooney, last night's groom and Wayne's brother, signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2011 and before that, he'd been one of Oyster's most potent weapons. The team can play, twice the winner of the FA Sunday Cup, a national tournament for the best amateur sides in Britain. Two of the men who founded the club, now gray and in their 70s, are sitting in the corner, talking to the bartender about the wedding.
Pat McNulty, a retired dockworker, helped start the team in the Oyster Pub, which went out of business nearly 15 years ago. Now his son Neil is the current manager of the club, taking over from Richie Rooney, Wayne's uncle. Neil works the night shift in a warehouse, 8:30 at night to 6 in the morning, and he's come in to visit his dad and Jimmy O'Neill, the only other founder still involved in the club. Neil and Wayne and their whole generation of Croxteth boys came up attending the Oyster games, and the party at the pub afterward, dreaming of one day being on the team.
"We grew up watching our dads," Neil says.
"Wayne used to watch us every weekend," Pat says. "He'd be running around the pub."
"We're still here," he says.
THE TEAM STARTED IN 1974, when amateur football was thriving in Britain. Liverpool's Sunday League had 11 divisions then. Now there are three.
The team's season ended a few weeks ago.
"We won two cups this year," Pat says, "and finished runners-up in the league. We've played in 18 cup finals in different cups. We won every league we've ever played in. We've won, at the last count I remember, 31 trophies."
Amateur teams compete in the Liverpool Sunday League, with the best sides such as Oyster in the premier division. Throughout the year, they play in other local and regional tournaments (the cups Pat talked about) and in the most important amateur tournament in the country, full of blue-collar dreamers like themselves, the FA Sunday Cup. In all, more than 130 amateur teams compete. Four times, Oyster has made it to the finals, winning it twice and losing it twice.
One of those losses came on penalties, after their opponents equalized in the 93rd minute.
"I was one minute away from lifting it," Neil says, still crushed. "I come in here and got rotten, stinking drunk. That's the only way I could get through the night."
"We cried that night," Pat says.
"I've won it as a player and a manager," Neil says. "I've also lost it as a player and a manager."
Just last night, Neil admits to the table, he got online and pulled up the final he won as a manager and watched the entire game, alone at home, reliving the joy. (Sober, he insisted.) The games take place at big professional stadiums, including one at Liverpool's famous Anfield, and the guys walk wide-eyed into the changing rooms and out the tunnels. The clubs do a great job of treating the amateurs with the same pampering as the professionals, making the whole experience a highlight of their lives.
"Everything was perfect," Pat says.
"They looked after us as though we were their team," O'Neill says.
During the regular season, far from the plush innards of a place like Anfield, they kick off on local fields at noon on Sunday. One of their biggest rivals is Lobster FC, named after the pub where they all drink now. Many pubs are closed, including their beloved Oyster, and the ones that remain open struggle.
"The pubs are empty now," Pat says. "People drink a lot in their homes. Go to supermarkets and get cheaper ale. They never used to but they do now."
"It'd be chock-a-block," O'Neill says.
"In the Oyster on a Sunday, you remember they used to give them sausages out?" says former player Steve Porter, whose son plays for Oyster now. "It was f---ing rammed. You couldn't get in the door."
Their lives revolved around the Oyster. Neil McNulty had his 21st birthday there. John, one of Pat's other sons, had the reception after one of his daughter's christenings. Fourteen years ago, the pub couldn't make the business work anymore. Pat McNulty and his family and friends closed the place down on its last night.
"We didn't realize how much we were gonna miss it," Pat says. "The night it closed, it was great, and then after a week or two, when you had to walk up here for a pint, it started sinking in. For us as a football club, our whole finance came from that pub. Tickets, raffles, plus asking the manager for a few shillings."
They survive on donations now. It takes about £2,500 a year to run a team, paying to wash uniforms and rent pitches and pay for the referees, and ...
"Fines," Neil says, grinning.
The current players work as carpenters, take their shifts in factories or load boxes. One is an accountant. One works for the railroad. Many of their fathers played for the team, and their sons go to the games, same as Neil McNulty and Wayne Rooney once did, life in Croxteth going around and around.
"It's gone from dads to sons to son's lads," Neil says.
"We've had the grandkids playing for us," Pat says.
"Hopefully it will carry on," Steve Porter says, a little wistful.
"Why not?" Pat says. "Why not?"
IT'S FATHER'S DAY, and Pat is surrounded by his sons and grandsons. His boys stop by the pub to say hello. Wayne Rooney, the little boy who once ran around the Oyster, was just on live television in the bar from the Euros, where he's captaining the England team. They all once dreamed of making it that far and the Sunday team is the last piece of those boyhood dreams that remain.
Pat points to people at tables, or those leaving the pub, nearly all of whom played for Oyster, trying to keep the tiny of flicker of something alive. The families like the McNultys or Rooneys, who have made the team so successful for so long, feel a responsibility to keep it going. This is their real hometown team, more than Everton just down the road or even England playing across the channel in France.
Sitting at the table, they're all having fun imagining signing a new striker once Rooney's days with Manchester United come to an end. Put him on the roster like everyone else -- first initial, last name: W. Rooney -- and just trot him out without warning, to the horror of the stevedore or steelworker who has to guard him. Pat's laughing and insisting that there's no way it would fly with the league.
"He'll play for Oyster," he says.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.