Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene for Everton in 2002 as one of the most enthralling and idiosyncratic footballing talents to come out of England for decades. And it wasn’t long before Sir Alex Ferguson and United decided to snap up a player, who finally, gave the nation a reason to dream. And when Rooney came bursting through the international scene at the Euros in Portugal in 2004 scoring four goals in three group stage matches, before an injury in the quarterfinal ended his tournament, the overwhelming feeling was that this was a player who had the potential to drive England to major honors – a genuine, top-class English player who combined aggression and flair, two traits that have often cohabited the minds of the retaliatory brutal Mark Hughes or the troubled genius Eric Cantona, United legends who were as likely to produce a moment of magic as much as they were likely to kick someone in the nuts.
Make no mistake, this was no ordinary player. This was a player destined for greatness, the kind of player that comes along once in a generation – a player who combined the best of both worlds – the old-School English hustle and barge, and the speed and technicality of the Spanish or Germans. And the start to his career at the Theatre of Dreams was the stuff of dreams. A brilliant hat-trick against Fenerbahce on a beautiful September night at Old Trafford was the simplest way to answer the critics who were looking skeptical of the 25.6 million pounds United shelled out for a teenager. The Guardian’s Rob Smyth, a United fan himself, was reporting on the game, and was stunned by an 18-year old who looked capable of conquering the world. “The hairs on the back of my neck are going ballistic… we all knew he was good, but that was frightening.” England finally had somebody to pin their hopes on.
It wasn’t only the flair and aggression that carried him through – this was a player opposition defenders feared, a player who imposed himself on the opposition with his fearless attitude and physicality, not to mention an instinct for finding the goal from virtually any position. But Rooney’s rise at United coincided with the rise of a self-obsessed psychopath from Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo seemed more concerned about whether there was enough gel on his hair in his first couple of seasons at United, and his showboating, selfishness and arrogance were often misinterpreted as a manifestation of his immaturity, but this fanatical desire to become the best in the world was what drove the Portuguese to the pinnacle of the game in 2008 as he won the Balon d’Or with Manchester United winning the Champions League that season. Maybe Ronaldo just wanted it more. More than Rooney.
Rooney’s competitiveness, determination and the desire to contribute for the team’s cause was shaped into defensive work and playing second fiddle to Ronaldo, who emerged as United’s talisman. Rooney was shunted out to the left wing to allow Cristiano Ronaldo to lead the attack against Barcelona in the UCL final in Rome in ’09, much like he was asked to play at right wing to keep the screws on Ronaldo when United visited Real at the Bernabeu in Ferguson’s last season in charge, while Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck, of all people, led the line. Oh, Sir Alex, why on Earth?
When Ronaldo’s lust for glory took him to his dream club, Real Madrid, Rooney finally had the chance to prove his mettle. This was an opportunity he wasn’t going to let go, as United replaced the best player in the world with the best player at Wigan. Rooney fired goals left, right, and centre and developed an impressive aerial prowess out of thin air, destroyed Allesandro Nesta at the San Siro, finished with 34 goals in all competitions and was the best player in the league by a distance. He was finally looking like the force of nature he had always threatened to be. United were looking good for another Champions League final until Mario Gomez trod on his foot, Robben knocked United out, and Sir Alex’s side made a meal of the title in the latter weeks. A disappointing end to the season was followed by a disappointing World Cup for England as Rooney’s biggest contribution in South Africa was to lambast the England supporters on camera after a dull, listless draw against Algeria.
What followed as a season of turmoil for Rooney at United as he nearly made a switch across town to City but stayed on for a fatter paycheck and assurances that United would continue the attract the best talents in the world. United lost another Champions League final to Lionel Messi’s genius, and the camera which zoomed in on Rooney showed his slightly unfortunate TV close-up face, a regular sight following English disappointments in major competitions – a sad, knackered, spam-faced Rooney with a seemingly hopeless demeanor. If only he could look as darkly heroic as David Beckham or as gracious as Frank Lampard after a defeat. But that is far from it – there is no player on the football pitch who works harder than Wayne Rooney. It might not always come off for him, but it isn’t for the lack of effort.
But another prolific 34-goal season in 2011/12 was followed by Sir Alex’s decision to buy the high-flying Robin van Persie from Arsenal. Rooney was asked to play as a No.10 behind RvP, at left wing to track back and do the dirty work, in central midfield against Sunderland as the former Arsenal man led United’s attack. RvP won the title with all his goals, and Rooney seemed to have lost his striker’s instinct for good. Maybe it was Ferguson’s arrogance which caused him to drop Rooney in the pecking order after the season he had, or maybe it was because Sir Alex lost faith in Rooney as a lone striker. Picking a fight with Ferguson is not something that is done lightly. Few people, and no United players, had lived to tell the tale. Ask Roy Keane on how it worked out for him. Sir Alex never forgives, he never forgets. Keane was the last straw for him, and he never went on to buy or deal with players who could take on the manager. Rooney was no yes-man, unfortunately.
Rooney’s demand for transfer activity backfired on him. A new United hero emerged in the form of Robin van Persie, and Rooney reverted to looking disinterested and lost. A mere 12 goals in the League, thanks to being asked to shield the back four at times. Rooney seemed to have become Sir Alex’s ‘workhorse’, a role that had been increasingly fostered upon him thanks to a manager who lost belief in the England man as a week-in, week out goalscorer, and in the absence of a Roy Keane-like presence in the team. I ask again – Oh, Sir Alex, why on Earth? Rooney had to be content being an important contributor in a good team, and slowly but steadily, the idea that Rooney would grace the pinnacle of the sport was beginning to die down.
What has followed since was a transitional season gone miserably wrong, and the small steps that United have taken to get back to their glory days under an arrogant Dutchman who, unlike David Moyes, seems to know what he’s doing. It is safe to say that Rooney has lost that vicious goalscoring instinct which he possessed in his early days, his meagre tally of 42 goals in 96 league appearances since the start of the 2012/13 season is highly unidentifiable of a player who could have touched the skies if he tried in his teenage days. Rooney seems to have lost a yard or two of pace, his first touch in recent games has only been marginally better than a football controlling another football, and that knack for goal, that instinct to find the net has disappeared. Rooney is still a top player, there isn’t any doubt about that – he just isn’t a top striker anymore.
Rooney has a fair case to be enshrined as the nation’s most polarising footballer in decades, the most widely condemned, inexplicably blamed England player in a long time – even as the nation’s leading goalscorer with a rate of goals as good as the likes of Ronaldo and Messi in international matches, he continues to be regarded as a choker, a big-game sucker, a subject of squealing rage. He did create and score England’s only goals in Brazil last year, was arguably England’s best player, is their highest scorer with 50 goals, and yet continues to draw squeals and jeers from a set of fans who expected so much more. The retreat from the promise of a 17-year old who seemed capable of carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders – to a 29-year old who leaves you wondering which Rooney would turn up, can’t be easy to digest. Rooney still remains the ‘last of the street footballers’, as David Moyes remarked – a modern take on old-School English footballing ideology which combined hustle and barge with odd moments of technical brilliance, but he could have been so much more.
The suggestion that Rooney has held the team back – both United and England – is however a farcical one. Yes, he has lost some of his early age abilities – his lung-bursting pace, his ability to create a yard, shape his body, lock his target and wrap his foot around the ball before those around him could react. He now relies on his finishing, his vision, his eye for a pass, his ability to graft – his only crime being simply that he was almost a great player. He was so nearly upon that special platform at the doorstep of footballing utopia that the likes of Ronaldo and Messi have reached. He was so nearly there, but not quite. No, he isn’t overrated. The young Wayne Rooney was the best thing in football at that moment in time. That, in itself, makes looking at the current Wayne Rooney all the more difficult, as a United and England fan both.
That being said, Wayne Rooney playing as pathetically as he has been isn’t acceptable. Rooney has to dig deep and find something, he has to step up and be counted in what is a vital season for United. Rooney has achieved everything there is to achieve in the game, he could not care the slightest and still walk away with both the England and United goal scoring records in a while, but would that really be enough? There’s still something unfinished about him – something lost and misplaced in his early days and never quite recovered. Rooney could have been so much more.
Steve Jobs took to an Indian temple for inspiration before coining his Apple Idea, Rooney could go the spiritual way if he pleases. He has to find inspiration from somewhere. It is that desire to succeed that separates the best from the mediocre, it is time for one last throw of the dice for the Manchester United and England captain. He could choose to look back on his career as a series of ‘what might have been’, or he could look at it with pride that even though ultimate greatness eluded him, he represented his club and country with his heart on his sleeve and never stopped trying. It remains to be seen whether he can silence the critics one last time.