For those Reds able to tolerate the international game – there are, Rant is told, a few – Wayne Rooney’s England début may still be remembered as the sparkling entrance of a 17-year-old wunderkind. Nearly a decade on from that substitute appearance against Australia at Upton Park, Rooney has become a senior member of Roy Hodgson’s dysfunctional side. Not the star of the international scene many had hoped, but a player who has found a new maturity – at least according to the Croxteth-born striker.
Indeed, Rooney now hopes to emulate a latter-day Manchester United hero, Eric Cantona, and become an inspiration to a new generation. It is a role for which Rooney has long seemed unsuited, but one which may define the second half of his career.
Now a senior player for club and country, Rooney has appeared 370 times for United and earned 76 England caps. It eclipses Cantona’s tally both for the Reds and at international level. In that the former Evertonian has become an experienced campaigner; a player far removed from the scruffy youth fresh off the Liverpool streets who broke onto the world scene.
But seasoning is where the comparison ends; Rooney’s brilliance has too often been tempered by frequent injuries and inconsistencies in a career that has hit many heights, but perhaps never of the world’s élite. Nor, crucially, has Rooney become the role model Cantona would eventually become at Old Trafford, inspiring the ‘Class of 92’ to a generation of unprecedented silverware, long after the Frenchman had retired.
Cantona did not always excel. In spells with seven clubs before arriving at Old Trafford in December 1992 the errant Frenchman fell foul of Fédération Française de Football, club coaches, team-mates, the national manager and the media. Banned, dropped, castigated and frozen out, Cantona’s career was every bit as controversial as Rooney’s and far more.
Not until Cantona was 26-years-old, as Rooney is today, did L’Enfant Terrible find peace and the comforts of home at Old Trafford. Transformed from the player no manager could trust, to Ferguson’s lieutenant in a crusade for success and home and abroad. In that there is also a lesson for Rooney, and the hope that fortune favours a player who could remain at the top for another decade.
“I hope it is time for me to show I am a senior player and that I can lead the team,” claimed Rooney ahead of England’s match with San Marino on Friday.
“I understand the scrutiny I’m under and I have no problems with that. Hopefully in the near future we will be coming out of a tournament and you will all be praising me because we have won a trophy. That would be great for everyone.
“It’s especially important now, when we have a lot of young players in the squad. I always try to speak to them and offer advice. I always remember what Sir Alex Ferguson says about how Eric Cantona was such a big help to the younger players at United.”
In that Rooney must now take responsibility not only on the pitch, but off it where injuries and concerns over fitness have too often disrupted a career blessed by unlimited natural talent. Nor has the former Everton forward found Cantona’s consistent brilliance, or iconic status – the ability to inspire a generation and lead a team to greater glories.
If Rooney is yet to match Cantona’s legend, he is increasing mirroring the Frenchman’s role on the pitch, becoming the creative focal point in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. On Saturday Rooney shadowed Robin van Persie at St. James’ Park, drifting between the lines as United’s iconic number seven did in 185 games for the club.
This is a role Rooney is likely to replicate for the national side this week, with expectations of an English victory high and Rooney determined to finally excel on the international stage. Manager Hodgon says Rooney’s time is now.
“Every time Wayne Rooney goes on the field people expect him to be magnificent,” said Hodgson.
“We all know he is a magnificent player but football doesn’t give you the opportunity to be magnificent every time you step onto a football field. I’m looking forward very much to the next couple of years with Wayne, he’s going to be an important person as each team needs that person up front who can make a difference, who scores the goals or sets them up.”
United’s number 10 is also likely to reprise Cantona’s role as an international captain, by taking the arm-band against San Marino at Wembley on Friday night. With Frank Lampard injured, Steven Gerrard suspended, and Rio Ferdinand not considered, Rooney will lead the Three Lions in his 77th international.
In form, fit and set to be a father once again, Rooney has few excuses left for failure. Whether the player can make a step forward and inspire a generation is cause for debate. Indeed, Rooney now has every opportunity to drive a new Old Trafford generation to glory, not simply as part of the whole, but its leading figure.
Long after Cantona’s retirement the Frenchman is revered – an iconoclast now lionised for his performances on the pitch and his unremitting aura off it. So much so that a chance meeting with the 46-year-old recently turned this ageing hack into a groupie, briefly reminded of a teenage crush.
“I’m so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop,” Cantona once said. “I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose.”
In setting lofty goals the Englishman has much to gain, and little love to lose. Rooney has earned none of that. Not just yet.