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Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Paradox of Wayne Rooney

The moment Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene was unforgettable. We all remember the fresh faced teenager coming on as a substitute in an Arsenal and Everton league game and blasting what writer Iain Macintosh would describe as a "thunderbastard" past the pony tailed legend that is David Seaman. He never looked back. Then came Euro 2004 where he turned in some of his most feted England performances and the feeling was that we were watching a player who would be one of the greats of our time. 10 years later and there's a bipolar response to Rooney the man. He's Captain of both the national team and his club and there's still a very lukewarm air to the man who was the boy. Why?



Here goes the good;



[caption id="attachment_5909" align="aligncenter" width="750"]Rooney, the angel. Rooney, the angel.[/caption]

When we talk to our children about the footballers of our time two names who have been underrated at times would stand out; Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas. Both are players who came on to the scene quite young and made their mark. Rooney had to get past the likes of Kevin Campbell and Duncan Ferguson at Everton and then Ruud van Nistelrooy, Diego Forlan and Louis Saha at United whereas Fabregas had to deal with the likes of Gilberto Silva, Edu (who was released after the Spaniard's first season in the first team) and Patrick Vieira. A decade later, Fabregas is one of the most prolific assist providers and Rooney goalscorers in the history of the Premier League. In a sport like football, it's very rare to find such consistency at the highest level.

Earlier this year, Simon Kuper provided an interesting anecdote on Wazza. He spoke of having had an opportunity to interview him which he delegated to David Winner, the intelligent writer of Brilliant Orange (on the history of Dutch football), Dennis Bergkamp: Stillness and Speed and the recent Rio Ferdinand autobiography '#2Sides'. Winner intended for the piece to accentuate Rooney's underrated cerebral nature. Paul Stretford, Rooney's agent had asked him not to ask any mentally challenging questions. The reason being that "Wayne won't be able to answer them" whilst the article mentions Alan Shearer pooh poohing the idea that Rooney has an underrated brain. Some of Rooney's responses were illuminating. He spoke of his visualization techniques and how he would "ask the kit man what colour we're wearing - if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a "memory" before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life." [1]Winner was particularly keen on getting a playback of his outstanding scissors kick in the Manchester derby which he explained saying "When a cross comes into a box, there's so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball. You're asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you've got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you've obviously got to try and hit it first-time. If he's farther back, you've got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it's obviously about the execution."[2]This quote makes sense in the context of his most recent goal for United. The manner in which he took the cross from Rafael and guided it in into the goal highlights how quick his brain works and validates Winner's theory that the constant put down of sportsmen as "nit wits" or "dumb" is patently wrong. Rooney modeled his game after hipster favourite, Jari Litmanen and the manner in which he manipulated space which would explain his tendency to drop deep to find gaps. In a sense, it's probably why he's never ever functioned as a classic No 9: He's too intelligent to limit himself to being a pure poacher.

As he's gotten older and lost some of the explosiveness that made him susceptible to clouds of red mist as youngster, he has shone more for his off the pitch sensibilities. There was a little trip to Vegas before Euro 2012 that highlighted poor judgment but it wasn't on the level of him visiting whorehouses or cheating on his pregnant girlfriend/wife. As England captain he has been credited with the innovation of "players only" meetings which have supposedly created a better atmosphere as the players are more likely to speak freely amongst themselves with the salient points relayed back to the coaching staff. This has been credited with the use of the diamond formation in the Switzerland game: a result coming at a time when calls for Hodgson's job were at the loudest. Rooney has reached the point of elder statesman and seems keen to make his mark.

Finally, there's a reason why he's proved to be a hit with all his managers. He is a fully committed player who can perform adeptly in a wide range of roles. Every season he tends to hit double figures in goal and assists. Despite falling out with David Moyes (it was so bad they ended up in court) when leaving Everton, he was one of the few players to emerge with any credit during the Scot's ill fated spell at United. Last summer, he was a priority for both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho as they sought solutions to their striking woes. There's also a reason Fergie signed him. And then with all the talk of him being the most likely casualty in wake of Louis van Gaal's United, he was chosen as Captain. 'Cos that's exactly how one bodies the haters.

Here goes the bad;

It's the Champions League quarter final. Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo are in town and after United's performance in the first leg, the feeling is that they might be able to nick it. The team sheet comes in and it's confirmed one big name would be watching from the bench. His name is Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck has been chosen above him. Fergie's take being that Welbeck would be more diligent at doing a job on Xabi Alonso who is one of the most proficient at setting the tempo from the base of that midfield. That episode says a lot: On the biggest stage, he can't be trusted to deliver. It must also be remembered that he went into the most recent World Cup with his credentials being questioned as he had never scored a World Cup goal. It can't be said that this goes hand in hand with the status of the pay packet from his last contract or his 2010 rhetoric expressing concern at the transfer business being done at the club. The argument being that when you make such demands, you best be at the top of your game, something that hasn't been said of Rooney in a long time. Zlatan Ibrahimovic can impose himself as Director of Football at Paris Saint Germain because his performances merit that standing.

At the weekend, his scythe at Stewart Downing nearly cost the team. Fouling can be done artistically. Mark van Bommel was one of the most cynical players to grace the game but he excelled at making cute fouls that wouldn't be seen as meriting cards. Rooney's foul left his team under the cosh for the rest of the game and had they blown the lead, he would have had a lot to answer for. That adds to his catalogue of badly conceived decisions: sarcastically clapping at the referee against Villareal in 2005, the stamp on Carvalho in 2006, swearing to the camera in 2011 after scoring a hat trick (against West Ham coincidentally), the foul against Montenegro. Once is never, twice is always.



Another factor to the poor perception of Rooney stems from the parallels between him and Cristiano Ronaldo. Whilst Ronaldo was still at United, both players formed the core of an outstanding team that were perpetually in the latter stages of the Champions League. Initially, they were peers performing at similar thresholds: in 2004-2005, Rooney scored 11 to Ronaldo's 5 goals. In Ronaldo's defence he was still a pure winger and adapting to the English game but Ronaldo's progression outstripped Rooney's significantly. To call them 'peers' now would be slightly disrespectful to Ronaldo. Last term, Rooney scored 17 league goals to Ronaldo's 31.[3] Ronaldo ended up at Real and there's a great point to be made that there has never been enough from Rooney to justify a super club coming for him. Barcelona and Real Madrid who are engaged in a luxury signings arms race have looked at him and never found him worthy which is an indictment on his talents to transcend to a higher level. There's a story that last summer, David Moyes said to him "If you're a top player, why did Chelsea bid 20 million for you?" Sid Lowe wrote of Real looking at him SIX years ago. In that time, I've left secondary school, been to Sixth form and University and currently in Law school. At what point does such a downturn in form and status become the mean?

The greatest individual honor one can attain in the game is to win the Ballon d'or. Since 2008 Ronaldo has won that honor twice and come 2nd thrice. The best Rooney has fared is 5th. He has placed 13th, 8th and 15th. Twice, he did not even make the top 23. It is against this backdrop that the claims that he has not been "world class" for too long come into play. Joey Barton remarked in April that Rooney had not progressed since he burst onto the scene at 16 and whilst that was over the top, his criticisms of his lifestyle choices do hold some merit. There's also a sense that playing at the top level means he peaked too soon. This was a viewpoint expressed by Paul Scholes right before the World Cup. The struggles Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard had with injuries also serve as a cautionary tale to the perils of playing top flight football from a young age.

As he marches on in his quest to break Manchester United's goal record and Alan Shearer's Premier League record, the jury will remain out on Wayne Rooney's credibility as a legitimate star. The records are the tour de force on which his legacy will be built. Naysayers could counter this pointing out that he has had an easy run: A striker playing at Manchester United would always have a decent goalscoring record. He was lucky to be bought as such a young age and thus get an extended run unlike any of his rivals. Compare his record with Thierry Henry who he recently overtook on the Goals leaderboard. Rooney has scored 176 goals in 380 appearances whereas Henry's tally of 175 goals was done in 258 games. Can it possibly be said that Rooney is a greater player or at par with the Frenchman?

As such, it's only right this examination of Wayne Rooney ends as it started: Posing a question. How good has Wayne Rooney really been?
[1] 'My Years of Studying Jari Litmanen', Daily Mail http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2145801/Wayne-Rooney-My-years-studying-Jari-Litmanen.html#ixzz3Ei0hcydx

[2] Jonathan Wilson, 'The Question: Do Footballers know what they're doing?’, The Guardian, 29th May 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2012/may/29/wayne-rooney-answers-questions

[3] Manchester United: Wayne Rooney is not world class- Joey Barton, BBC Sport, 3rd April 2014, http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/26867861


Originally published on Culture Custodian on 3rd October 2014. 

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