Can Wayne Rooney stage a late-career revival where it all began, the Euros?
WAYNE ROONEY WILL FOREVER be associated with the European Championship. He became an instant superstar at Euro 2004, and in the mid-2000s, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were his only rivals as the best young player in the world.
Now they occupy vastly different worlds. While Ronaldo and Messi compete for the greatest club honours and have a duopoly on the Ballon d'Or, Rooney has been stuck in an unrewarding limbo for what were supposed to be his peak years. The European Championship, and the appointment of Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager, are surely Rooney's last chances of a late-career revival. And yet, it feels churlish to say Rooney has not fulfilled his potential.
His statistical legacy is almost complete. He is England's leading goal scorer (52 goals in 111 international appearances) and needs five to become United's leading scorer with 250 goals, passing Sir Bobby Charlton. But the brilliance of Rooney was never something that could be measured in numbers. He played the game for moments rather than mementoes, for glory, love and self-expression.
David Moyes, Rooney's former Everton and United manager, called him "the last of the classic street footballers." After one game against Arsenal, Arsene Wenger called Rooney a "complete footballer." He was 16-years-old at the time.
The standards Rooney set as a teenager, which brought comparisons with Pele and Diego Maradona, created stratospheric expectations. John Giles, the former Leeds midfielder, Republic of Ireland player-manager and not a man given to hyperbole, even suggested that Rooney might become the greatest footballer in history. "I don't believe I have ever seen a better equipped, more naturally gifted footballer than Wayne Rooney," Giles said in October 2004.
"He has everything you would ever want in a great player... But can he become the greatest of all time? It depends on so many things. They include his friends, his girlfriend... his agents and, most of all, himself."
Those are some of the reasons Rooney has slipped so far behind Ronaldo and Messi. You certainly could not Hollywood-ize his career; it has multiple, overlapping themes and few absolute truths. It's a story of lost innocence, sliding doors and what happens when a footballer who embodies youth starts to grow old.
IN LIFE, SIGNIFICANT CHANGES happen imperceptibly. The same is true of Rooney's career. When you revisit some of his early performances -- against France at Euro 2004 or the FA Cup final of 2005 against Arsenal -- it is like watching a different person. That happens with most players, but with Rooney, it is particularly acute and poignant because of the adventure and rugged charisma in those early performances.
Rooney personified fearlessness, and not just the kind found on the field. In October 2004, six weeks after he had joined United, Rooney was in the team room the night before a match against Birmingham. Roy Keane was watching rugby league on the TV. When Keane went to the toilet, Rooney switched the channel and hid the remote. Keane returned and conducted an impromptu investigation, during which Rooney smirked and said nothing. Keane went off to his room in a mild huff. The next morning, Rooney asked Keane whether he'd found the remote and smiled when he was told to go f--- himself. "I wasn't scared of him," Rooney said. "I'm not scared of anyone."
On the field, the teenage Rooney was carpe diem on two legs, not caring if he was playing against Lilian Thuram, Sol Campbell or Gary Neville. In September 2002, Neville played for United reserves against Everton. "There was this stocky bull of a kid, just 16 years old, rolling the ball under his foot like he was the main man," Neville wrote in his autobiography, "Red."
"He was that good, I came in at half-time and asked our coaches, 'Who the bloody hell is that?' It wasn't just his skills but the physique and confidence to throw his weight around. He sent one of our lads sprawling. I was tempted to ask for his passport. He couldn't be 16."
Rooney was only 18 when he stole the show at Euro 2004 with four goals in the group stage. During the tournament, England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson said Rooney's impact was the most spectacular by a young player since Pele at the 1958 World Cup. A year later, Rooney was compared to Diego Maradona -- by Maradona. Rooney had that same combination of skill and bronca, an Argentinian word meaning "intense anger." For Maradona, anger wasn't just an energy; it was the energy.
Rooney also had Maradona's sense of theatre. His first hat trick came in the Champions League, during his Manchester United debut. His first Premier League goal for Everton, a brilliant curler, ended Arsenal's 30-league match unbeaten run in 2002, while his first Premier League goal for United ended Arsenal's 49-league match unbeaten run two years later. The story goes that after scoring against Arsenal in 2002, Rooney was out on his BMX bike and kicking a football around with his mates before the Arsenal coach had left Goodison Park. They were simpler, more innocent times. Rooney earned £80 a week when he scored that goal.
Life was never going to stay that simple. Now it takes him around three minutes to earn £80. When Rooney was younger, the world was different: Disputes were settled face-to-face, or occasionally fist-to-face. Now, in a digital world, there is passive-aggressive behaviour, politics and briefing. Whatever the reason (necessity, ego, bad advice), he was drawn into that world more and more as his career progressed. As recently as last month, there were suggestions he was the one who put the knife in Louis van Gaal's back.
Despite the rumours, Rooney is a much-admired leader and a model of media training. The straightforward, upfront kid is now hailed for being economical with the truth during news conferences. He was widely praised for his part in planning the Wembley tributes when England played France four days after the Paris attacks last November, and as captain, Rooney has confounded expectations. He has not always led by example on the field -- his run to create Juan Mata's FA Cup final goal against Crystal Palace was a memorable exception, a reminder of the old Rooney -- but he has become almost statesmanlike, and a father figure to United's young team.
MATURITY HAS BEEN LESS kind to him in other areas. As well as the obvious physical issues, the young Rooney played with the kind of furious desire that is hard to sustain as you age. A comment he made last month about Marcus Rashford -- "As a young lad, you don't need to take that much information in; just go and play and express yourself" -- applied equally to Rooney's career.
As a teenager, Rooney just played. But then instinct gives way to thought, and confidence becomes ever more fragile. Even at his best, Rooney blew unusually hot and cold, with clusters of goals sandwiched by lean spells; that suggests a deceptively precarious confidence. In addition, his body type means that rhythm is more important for him than most.
"Footy has had a massive impact on my body, because my game is based on speed and power. Intensity," Rooney wrote four years ago in his autobiography "My Decade in the Premier League"."As a striker, I need to work hard all the time; I need to be sharp, which means my fitness has to be right to play well. If it isn't, it shows."
Rooney hasn't had any serious injuries in his career, which makes it downright sadistic that three of them should come when he was close to career-defining achievements. England might have won Euro 2004 had he not been injured in the quarterfinal against Portugal; the others came on the eve of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. On both occasions, he was playing at his peak. Although he appeared at both tournaments, he was not fully fit either time and had lost his rhythm.
The high-profile nature of those injuries sometimes obscures the fact that Rooney's career has been largely uninterrupted. He made his debut at 16 and played over 200 senior games before his 21st birthday. Now, at 30, he has played over 700 games, mostly in demanding attacking roles. The phrase "age is just a number" works both ways.
"People talk about age; it's miles on the clock and games played that matter," said former Liverpool and England defender and current Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher earlier this year. "I just think he's been playing so long now that maybe it's 30 on his birth certificate, but in terms of games played, he's a 35-year-old player." If you perceive him as such, his past few years feel more like overachievement than underachievement.
This is especially important because of Rooney's physiology. He is naturally heavy and does not lead a yogic lifestyle: He has repeatedly been pictured in newspapers enjoying cigarettes, alcohol and junk food. In 2009, he returned for preseason seven pounds overweight. He has not devoted his life to football to the same extent as some. Rooney and Ronaldo were both forces of nature, but only Ronaldo is a force of nurture.
"Whenever he was out for a few weeks with an injury, his fitness would drop quite quickly," Sir Alex Ferguson said of Rooney in his autobiography. "He has a big, solid frame... Wayne has great qualities about him, but they could be swallowed up by a lack of fitness. Look at the way Ronaldo or [Ryan] Giggs looked after themselves."
RONALDO WAS A CONSTANT reference point in the first half of Rooney's career. It's sometimes forgotten that at the club level, Rooney was superior in his first two years at Old Trafford, winning PFA Young Player of the Year each time. The following season, 2006-07, Ronaldo took the Young Player of the Year award off Rooney and won both Player of the Year awards. He took a shortcut to greatness that season.
In Ronaldo's last three years at Manchester United, from 2006 to 2009, Rooney became his right-hand man, often his equal in the creation of extraordinary goals but sometimes his lackey, especially in big European games, when Rooney had to chase up and down the wing because his defensive discipline was superior to Ronaldo's.
That small but significant marginalisation arguably had an insidious impact upon Rooney's confidence. His big-game record certainly deteriorated over time. He has scored only two goals at major international tournaments since 2004, and his three Champions League final appearances were all disappointing. Yet for all the occasional frustration, those three years (2006-09) were perhaps the happiest of Rooney's career. He played joyful, expressive football and won three league titles, the Champions League and the Club World Cup.
After Ronaldo left for Real Madrid, and particularly after a terrible year in 2011, Rooney's selflessness blurred with a confused entitlement. In his alleged demands over contracts and captaincy, his desire to play in a certain position and the public rollockings he would administer to his team, there has been a sense of Rooney trying to rouse himself to become the player he once was by first assuming the status of a great player.
"I think there had to come a point where for my own career I had to be a bit selfish, really," he said, in 2013, in reference to his frayed relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. It is easy to conclude Rooney should have been more selfish earlier in his career, though he could not have reasonably demanded to be given preferential treatment over Ronaldo. He would, however, have benefitted from being more selfish in terms of his physical commitment; for much of his career, Rooney played only in top gear and wanted to be involved in every aspect of the game.
"I've always gone back to defend," he said in another of his autobiographies, "The Way It Is," in 2006. "I see that as part of my job."
That started to change a little in 2009, when Ronaldo's departure made Rooney the focus of the team. When he was told by Ferguson on the first day of preseason that he would play a lot of games up front on his own, Rooney was "dead chuffed. Now I can concentrate on scoring goals. No more running up and down the wing for me, chasing overlapping full-backs."
The 2009-10 season was, on a personal level, the best of his career. He scored 34 goals (he might have reached 40 if not for an untimely injury) and cleaned up the Player of the Year awards. The next-highest scorer was Dimitar Berbatov with 12. The No. 1 team man had become a one-man team.
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT SLIDING door of Rooney's career occurred in March 2010, away to Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.
His early goal was his 18th in 13 games, the kind of volcanic streak we associate with Messi and Ronaldo. United were on course for a record fourth consecutive league title, the Champions League was wide open (they stuffed Milan 7-2 in the previous round) and the World Cup was 10 weeks away. Rooney seemed to be taking the same shortcut to greatness that Ronaldo had done three seasons earlier. But in injury time, just before Bayern scored their winning goal, Rooney damaged his ankle in a tackle with Mario Gomez. Although Rooney came back a week later, his ankle continued to bug him and he never came close to regaining his form. In the last nine months of 2010, he scored just twice for United, both penalties.
He also had a stinker at the World Cup. "At the moment, Rooney isn't Rooney," England manager Fabio Capello said during the tournament. He hasn't really been Rooney since. That Bayern injury was the end of Rooney V1.0.
He alienated many England fans with an outburst about loyalty after the draw with Algeria, and Manchester United fans were infuriated when he publicly asked for a transfer in October. Rooney's mood had been darkening ever since that injury against Bayern. It became worse at the start of the new season, when the tabloids -- who had turned on him after the World Cup -- reported that he had cheated on his pregnant wife Coleen with a prostitute.
Rooney couldn't even enjoy his usual sanctuary. "I have 'mare after 'mare on the football pitch," he wrote a couple of years later. "I get frustrated with myself, my game, my injury and everything around me. I know I'm stuck in a cycle of bad form, but I can't get out of it. And that's when I make the biggest mistake of my football career."
It was widely reported that he wanted to join Manchester City, prompting a group of balaclava-wearing United fans to visit his house and inform him of the consequences of such a move: "If you join City, you're dead." Rooney's public reasoning -- that United were going backwards and needed better players -- has been validated by subsequent events. But taking on Sir Alex Ferguson in public was as unwise as briefing against Machiavelli.
In October 2010, Rooney, who was injured, released a statement two hours before a Champions League match against Bursaspor, saying that the chief executive David Gill "did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad." Ferguson later said he thought Rooney had been "programmed in what he was trying to say."
There was a severe backlash. "Everyone makes a fuss... [but] they don't know where my head's at," Rooney said in "My Decade in the Premier League". "The only person who really knows what's going in there is me, but even I'm not sure what I want."
Two days later, he signed a new contract to stay at United. It was worth £250,000-a-week, which made him the highest-paid player in the world. "There was a mixed reaction from the players," Ferguson said. "Some were put out; others were not bothered by him. It was a sorry episode for Wayne." At that stage, Ferguson needed Rooney more than the other way round. There was always a sense of an uneasy peace between the two from that point on.
The same couldn't be said of Rooney and some United fans who never forgave him for his perceived avarice and disloyalty. He had a good spell in the spring and autumn of 2011 (enough for his highest Ballon d'Or finish of fifth), but things were never quite the same. An accumulation of slights got to him: being banned for swearing into a TV camera at West Ham, the scrutiny when he was sent off in Montenegro and had to miss the first two games of Euro 2012. There wasn't the same sense of belonging.
At his best, Rooney plays as if it's him against the world, but that isn't quite the same as thinking the world is against you.
THE JOY STARTED TO disappear from his game as well. It did not help that United became a relatively limited, prosaic side. He became a less creative player, and then he became less capable of creativity; the alarming deterioration in his first touch is the most obvious manifestation. The England team also became worse. He went from being a fantasy footballer to a Fantasy Footballer, a productive goal scorer who was more efficient than expressive.
He scored 34 goals in 2011-12, the same as 2009-10, though he was not quite as influential or popular. It was telling that Antonio Valencia was voted the club's Player of the Year. The following summer, ahead of what would be his final season, Ferguson signed Robin van Persie from Arsenal. The Dutchman scored a hat trick in his third game, won the title almost on his own and got on famously with Ferguson.
In the second half of the season, Rooney was marginalised to such an extent that he was humiliatingly omitted from the Champions League match at home to Real Madrid because Ferguson didn't think he was smart or disciplined enough to track Xabi Alonso. It was a legacy of the 2011 Champions League final defeat against Barcelona, when Ferguson was unhappy with how Rooney defended Sergio Busquets.
If that snub hurt Rooney the most, his omission in less important games (or his selection in a deeper midfielder role) was probably more troubling because of what it signified. "In my final year, when he was left out a few times, and replaced in games, I felt he was struggling to get by people and had lost some of his old thrust," Ferguson said. "He was capable of making extraordinary contributions... Those flashes guaranteed his profile. But as time wore on, I felt he struggled more and more to do it for 90 minutes, and he seemed to tire in games."
Ferguson said Rooney asked for a transfer toward the end of the season; Rooney's version is that he said, "If you're not going to play me, then it might be better for me to move on." Either way, Ferguson wiped the floor with him politically and left Rooney less popular than ever with a significant portion of supporters. Despite that, and like so many who fell out with Ferguson, Rooney still regards him as the "best manager of all time."
IT SEEMS CLEAR WITH hindsight that Rooney needed a fresh challenge and should have left United -- certainly in 2013, and probably in 2010, when Barcelona were reportedly interested. But those were borderline decisions at the time, and even though he saw which way the wind was blowing, he could not have foreseen the extent of United's decline.
There is also a sense that Rooney wanted to have his cake and eat it; he wanted to be surrounded by great players and be the main man, even though his performances since the 2009-10 season have rarely justified that status. Now, even he doesn't argue he deserves to start in attack ahead of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, who scored 25 and 24 Premier League goals respectively last season, or the remarkable Marcus Rashford. Rooney recorded eight, his lowest return for 13 years. He has remained productive for England, however, with 12 in 16 games since the World Cup. He was also voted England's player of the year in 2014 and 2015.
His future is apparently in midfield, though that feels like an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. He started as someone who would play anywhere for the team; now he will play anywhere to get into the team. In the first part of his career, he wanted to be a No. 10; then, for a long time, he said he was a No. 9. When Rooney fell out with Ferguson in 2013, it was because he was picked in midfield, but now that is where he sees his future with United. In the FA Cup final this season, he did his best to emulate Paul Scholes in a deep-lying midfield position.
Rooney can certainly play the Scholes quarterback role, drilling crowd-pleasing, crossfield passes. But Scholes was so much more than a quarterback: He was a rugby fly-half who controlled games with his cute, accomplished short game as well as rifling long passes. He was a black belt in tiki-taka. Rooney has played well in midfield in some games, but they have generally been when he is not pressed by the opposition. When things are tighter, his touch can be fallible and his upper-body strength is not what it was; it is alarming to watch how easily he can be shoved off the ball. There is also compelling evidence that he finds it much harder to consistently turn his bronca into positive energy.
Rooney is searingly honest about his teams' failing but rarely talks of his own. The best clue we have is his body language, yet even that is contrary. Sometimes he rages. Sometimes he exudes the impotent frustration of a superhero whose powers no longer work. Sometimes, he seems to have accepted the strange reality of being a captain who needs to be shoehorned into the team.
The downside of that is that, if England fail at Euro 2016, Rooney will almost certainly be the scapegoat. "I'm not prepared to make this the Wayne Rooney show," said an increasingly tetchy Roy Hodgson after the 1-0 win over Portugal. "Wayne was one of the players out there. I've got nothing more to say on Wayne. You're talking about the player who has played 111 games for England and scored 53 goals, so perhaps his best position is 'anywhere on the field'."
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH MOURINHO is hard to predict. Mourinho wanted him in 2013, but that was as a No. 9. Rooney does not feel like a Mourinho midfielder, such is his lack of mobility. But if anyone can dredge up whatever bronca is left and give him a fresh start without moving clubs, it is Mourinho.
In 2015, Giles, who thought Rooney could become the greatest of all time, reflected on his career. "In terms of his potential to be great and how good he could be, I believe Rooney will always be judged negatively; perhaps not in England or among Manchester United fans, but certainly among neutrals," Giles said after Rooney became England's record goal scorer. "He looked very pleased with the fuss made of him by Roy Hodgson and the media, and I just wonder if that's now enough for him?
"There should be a little voice inside him telling him it's not enough. All the great players have that voice... It seems to me that Rooney's little voice has been silenced by the noise of those around him and the comfort of celebrity; that he no longer has it within him to demand more of himself."
Rooney never did become England's Maradona. You could argue that is our fault rather than his, that too much was expected; you could also argue he deserves more respect for what he has achieved. If his career was the other way round -- a crescendo rather than a diminuendo -- he would be far more revered. But that doesn't change the poignant sense that a career which burned in such exhilarating fashion is now just fading away.