We were always going to remember the name. From the moment he whipped home that iconic goal at Goodison Park to defeat one of the finest sides in Premier League history, Wayne Rooney’s name was etched into the tapestry of undying national hope. Seemingly, this explosive forward had all the talent to lead England to World Cup glory.
He became the player of whom the most words were spoken since Paul Gascoigne, with contrived similarities cited as a means of emphasising just how good this young player could be, or indeed how disappointing, as the former ultimately was. Often compared to Gascoigne in terms of his talismanic ability and invariably aggressive style, Rooney differs at least in one significant fashion – career management. Gazza, who has recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre in Arizona, perpetuating a long line of self-abusive behaviour that was in evidence even during his playing days, retired from the sport at the age of 34. In reality, his role in the game was over long before that, such was the extent of his harmful attitude.
Rooney has had his fair share of pernicious tabloid attention, to say the least, renowned for his fondness of tobacco, destructive involvement in extramarital affairs and a careless attitude with money. But by and large, there is an acceptance that Rooney has settled as a man and a family one too, and his ability to laugh off much of the media slur is even considered exemplary in some circles. That said, there exists an ineluctable, yet entirely bizarre sense of unfulfilled potential as a footballer, which is not too dissimilar from Gascoigne, despite Rooney’s four Premier League and one Champions League winners’ medals.
Rooney has been in the glaring spotlight ever since that goal for Everton against Arsenal just five days shy of his seventeenth birthday, and the expectancy has risen with every appearance for club and country. To no avail, as far as English hopes are concerned. The reality is that there is something of an unspoken acceptance now that this boy wonder is not to single-handedly deliver on the greatest international stage, partly because the game has changed. England fans are more realistic, or perhaps just defeatist, with Spanish supremacy an indictment of how modern football is not a sport dominated by the individual unless the collective is of a similar calibre, or at least on the same wavelength. Of course, that does not stop the media, British and foreign alike, emphasising the apparent importance of Rooney’s role in any success to go England’s way.
Rooney’s rise to prominence saw him move to Manchester United in August 2004 for around £27 million, one of the signings to kick-start a polemic over-pricing of English players that exists in an even more perverse form today. The real question is whether Rooney can in fact continue to be considered the key to England’s success and indeed, with an eruption of journalistic certainty that he is out of favour at Old Trafford following his omission from the starting line-up against Real Madrid, whether his future as Manchester United’s figurehead remains intact. For foreigners looking in, Rooney remains a symbol of English football, almost a caricature of the British bulldog sat on a mountain of outdated and unfounded hope. This ought not to be as accurate as it probably is.
With Wayne Rooney, in spite of his omnipresence in the papers, so much has gone unspoken. Perhaps it was assumed. Never as a Manchester United player has he been the most talented in the side, though there has been a considerable element of assumption with regard to his prominent role in the first team, let alone the squad. Rooney has always had others to share the limelight, to drive the success and to help him to be as effective a goalscorer as he has been for United, be it Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie or the perennial brilliance of Ryan Giggs at his side. Vitally, Rooney has never had to carry Manchester United alone, even if many of his individual performances have indicated his wonderful ability. On BBC Final Score on Saturday, Mark Bright alluded to Rooney’s exclusion on Tuesday, saying that “Ronaldo and Messi would never be left out of Real Madrid or Barcelona’s biggest matches”. The harsh truth is that Rooney is not of the same quality as these players and his presence for his club is not as essential. The early expectations will always weigh him down, however.
It is imperative that we learn to appreciate the differentiation between Rooney for England and Rooney for Manchester United. If Rooney were left out of an important England fixture, it would be genuinely disconcerting simply because he is the finest player in the national selection. The same does not apply to his absences from the United starting line up, because he is quite frankly not the best player at Old Trafford. A great deal of this stems from other problems, including an unwillingness on the part of English players to go abroad and experience foreign leagues. Indeed, if Rooney were a Real Madrid, Barcelona or even a Paris-Saint-Germain (given recent rumours) player and had been left out of an important match, there would not have been the same reaction from the Spanish, Catalan or French media, because he is not the shining light in their patriotic psyches. As it is, as the best English player in our greatest sporting export, the Premier League, his omission leads to outrage, particularly with the backdrop of a clash between England and Spain’s juggernauts in Europe’s elite competition. The dynamic so swiftly changes to one of national pride and Rooney has long been a pawn in this dance.
Another key omission from the dialogue about Rooney is that to an extent, it’s a miracle that he is still playing every week in the most aggressive league on Earth, given his physique. He was just five and half when Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut on March 3rd, 1991. The reality is that the latter is probably in better physical condition even as he ventures into his 40th year. Rooney’s pace has receded already and his ability to play at full intensity for 90 minutes is questionable. This is not necessarily a criticism of Rooney but more a demonstration of how ignorant expectations of him continue to be. Rooney is a footballer who was not naturally given the body to accommodate his ability and in that sense, he is a flawed phenomenon in his own right – one of the more potent similarities with Gascoigne. Inevitably, Rooney was never going to be the lasting boy wonder that people persist in casting as a shadow upon him, Manchester United and England.
Wayne Rooney is a very good footballer and his career has been one of notable success. Unfortunately, the amount that has been said about him, the expectation that has grown to unreachable levels and perhaps to an even greater extent, that which has gone unspoken, will always leave an unjust sense of unfulfilled promise as a mark on his career. Rooney will stay at Manchester United this summer and the evidence as to whether he will ever leave, given this sort of media outburst every year, is thus far unconvincing. One thing is certain: his prominence in the starting line up at Old Trafford will diminish, whether the media accepts it or not.