The narrative of Wayne Rooney’s career has always been complex. It had to be for the leading English talent in a generation. From boy-wonder to Manchester United’s elder statesman; transfer rebel to declining force. Rooney has rarely suffered for a shortage of unsolicited analysis. And yet, after 14 years at the top, here is he, set to start the Manchester derby on Sunday as United’s captain. Rooney’s talent may be on the wane, but his presence endures.
Despite the criticism attached to Rooney, in a period of diminishing returns, the Scouser is likely to end his career as England and United’s finest goalscorer. More than a decade on from that 25-yard strike against David Seaman’s Arsenal – the one announcing Rooney to the world – the striker remains omnipresent in the conversation.
Rooney is a player, and a man, whose story defies simple construct precisely because he has spent a career living with the labels attached by others: street ‘baller, working-class hero, the White Pele. Consumer of prostitutes, lover of the geriatric, family man and doting father. The most natural player England has produced since Paul Gascoigne; and perhaps, like the Geordie, an abuser of his talent as well.
The former Evertonian will finish his career with a series of personal and team records. Rooney’s 187 Premier League goals are 11 more than Alan Shearer had scored at 30, and 13 more than Thierry Henry. Robbie Fowler scored 35 fewer at the same age. Rooney has scored 50 for England in 108 caps and 236 in all competitions for United. In time Rooney will pass the 249 scored by Bobby Charlton for United, as he has passed the great man’s record for England. It is testament both to Rooney’s endurance and his relative consistency.
He has won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, two League Cups, and a Club World Cup. In 2010, Rooney was named the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, four years after he collected back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards. In 2004, Rooney was voted into the Euro 2004 team of the tournament – arguably the only successful international tournament he has enjoyed.
Yet, there is also a sense in which, despite all the records and silverware, Rooney’s was a promise not completely fulfilled.
Teenage Rooney was a scorer of great goals and then even greater goals still. His game was at once a burst of electric excitement and, yet, refined beyond its years. On the pitch, Rooney was a man, both physically and mentally, long before he left adolescence. The player’s first touch was outstanding, despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, and his vision as finely tuned as any on the continent. Little wonder the game’s great and good saw much in the 16-year-old.
“Rooney could be another George Best, I have no doubt,” Arsene Wenger once said of the youngster. “But football is a high-level sport and you must live the life of a monk. There is only one thing to be answered – how much do you love to play the game?”
Prescient words, although there is no doubt Rooney loved it once. Perhaps before fame, tabloids, and money took over. Today, Rooney is seemingly weighed down, if not by the burden of a decade in the light, then 14 years of pounding the turf. The player’s touch has all but gone, and that burst of pace a relic of a time past. He risks fading from the game as so many have in the past; a punchdrunk fighter staggering around the canvas on one night too many.
It is a world away from Rooney the effervescent kid, who plucked the ball out of the air without a second thought, and curled a strike past David Seaman with a rare nonchalance. It was a great moment, no matter to whom one’s allegiance lies.
Rooney’s rise to the Everton first team was no surprise though. Having joined the Toffees before his tenth birthday, Rooney scored goals at every age group, including eight during Everton’s run to the 2002 FA Youth Cup final. A t-shirt bearing the slogan “Once a Blue, always a Blue,” worn by Rooney after Youth Cup final defeat to Aston Villa, would come to haunt the player for years to come.
He made his first team début against Tottenham Hotspur in August 2002 and scored twice against Wrexham in the League Cup later that month. In October 2002, five days before his 17th birthday, Rooney scored that winning goal against Arsenal. Three months later Rooney became the youngest player to feature for England, when selected against Australia at Upton Park in February 2003.
Euro 2004 proved a both catalyst in Rooney’s career and, not for the last time at international level, personally cataclysmic. He became the youngest scorer in the competition’s history, bagging two against Switzerland, before suffering injury in England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal. After scoring four goals in as many matches, Rooney was named in the Team of the Tournament. It remains his finest international tournament.
Rooney’s performance in Euro 2004 accelerated his transfer to Manchester in the face of a potential bidding war for the teenager’s services, although Newcastle United’s preëmptive £20 million bid that summer was never likely to succeed, according to Rooney at least. In the end, United paid a record sum for a player under 20 – more than £25 million. It has been repaid many times over.
It was one of those rare transfers that brought excitement to players and fans alike.
“I first came up against him when he’d come on at Old Trafford for Everton, and he just skipped past me,” said Ryan Giggs. “I just thought, ‘Ooh, who’s this?’ He was just 16 or 17 at the time and everyone was after him, so it was great to see him come to United, because I’d seen first hand how tough it was to play against him.”
If any doubts remained about Sir Alex Ferguson’s judgement in pushing through a deal, then Rooney’s début hat-trick in a Champions League group tie against Fenerbahce ended the debate. It was a moment of exuberance to excite even the most experienced pro.
Rooney scored 14 more that season and took home the PFA Young Player of the Year award, although United finished third, some 18 points behind José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Yet, 2004 also proved to be the year in which Rooney first courted public controversy, with the player being forced to admit he regularly attended low-rent brothels in Liverpool. That his company turned out to be a 48-year-old rubber-wearing grandmother proved all-too-entertaining for the nation’s red-tops.
After all, Rooney has never been that far away from scandal, whether real or drummed up by the fourth estate. Prostitutes have remained a theme over the years, as were the red cards in Rooney’s early career. Those with England, such as the one obtained for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in the 2006 World Cup, drew headlines across the globe. He earned a reputation for petulance that was very slowly shed.
Though Rooney’s quality on the pitch remained high in years subsequent to 2004, his goalscoring consistency has always been questionable. It is the key failing that sets Rooney apart from the very best in his peer group – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi included.
The gap wasn’t always as stark as it is today, with some keen to factor into the analysis Rooney’s suspiciously lax approach to physical conditioning and a lifestyle that is not as monastic as Wenger once preached. There is always a lesson in history.
“Wayne can go on to achieve unbelievable things – he’s got so much talent,” Paul Gascoigne once said. “There were some things I knew I could get away with. Unfortunately, it all creeps up on you if you’re not too careful.”
The point remains unproven, if potentially judicious.
And if observers look back on Rooney’s career as one that is just a touch adrift of his former colleague, Ronaldo’s, then the Scouser’s role in two attempts to leave the club will also colour any future discussion. The first, in October 2010, is without dispute – and drew ire from fans everywhere – with Rooney’s entourage not only playing out negotiations through the press, but leaving little doubt that Manchester City was the destination of choice. It is a saga for which some will never forgive the player.
Rooney’s antics, more than five years ago, sought to leverage the mess of the Glazer ownership, by claiming the club “lacked ambition” during the height of Glazernomic parsimony. He had a point. Yet, Rooney also lost the public relations battle because Ferguson superbly tugged at fans’ instinctive loyalty, painting Rooney as a mercenary, the scourge of the modern game, in a masterpiece of public theatre.
Rooney’s second attempt at departure, in the summer of David Moyes’ appointment, remains more opaque. No written transfer request was forthcoming, claims Rooney, although Ferguson insists the player “wanted away” – the same language used three years earlier. Few doubt Rooney would have left for suitors Chelsea had United chosen to cash in.
In remaining at United through the summer of 2013, and later securing a lucrative five-year contract courtesy of Moyes’ persistence, Rooney was locked into his new place as an elder statesmen at the club. The effusive praise garnered through Moyes’ short reign certainly rankled with many; as do the “special privileges” proffered by Louis van Gaal. At least when the performances lack almost all the Rooney magic produced of old.
Rooney scored 19 in 37 appearances across all competitions under Moyes – 17 in the Premier League. No shame there, although just three came against traditional rivals: one versus City in a 4-1 defeat in September 2013 and two against Tottenham Hotspur in December that year. Under Van Gaal Rooney’s performance and output have declined further still. There are many who believe the player has not truly performed for the club since grabbing 34 in the 2011/12 campaign.
It is hard to argue that almost every indicator from the now 30-year-old suggests a player in a rapid cycle of permanent decline.
Rooney could seemingly care less for the observation and his manager remains effusive in support. Rooney’s privileges will remain for the season at least, not least because he is under contract until June 2019. One fact is sure: neither City nor Chelsea will make a bid next summer
Yet, to the player, the reduced output is simply the product of an enduring team ethic – one that has last more than 14 campaigns at the very top.
“I’m sure if you follow my career over the years, I’ve always been a team player,” Rooney said this week. “I want to score goals but the main aim is to be a team player – and that’s what I’ll continue to do. There’s nothing better than being successful as a team, to enjoy it with the players and coaches you’ve worked with. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Doubters remain, however, even as Rooney creeps towards Charlton’s goal tally. Rooney’s eventual record is one that may not be broken for generations to come. When the player crosses the threshold – at some point, in all likelihood, next season – he will have earned all the praise that comes.
There will also be detractors with a point too; one far more nuanced than modernity typically allows. That 16-year-old blossomed, but perhaps not as brightly as the summer of 2004 once promised. And, in the end, Rooney’s goals and years at United come with a caveat about his loyalty – the depth of which will vary with the observer.
That he wanted out and that his quality has dried up is not in doubt. Whether that matters is another point. After all, the narrative of Rooney’s career has always been complex.