Wayne Rooney is the golden boy of English football. Don’t kill him because you will need him.
Sven Goran Eriksson
“And what is all this nonsense I’ve been reading,” he (an Israeli fan old enough to remember Finney) asked, “about Wayne Rooney being one of the best young players in the world. He was one of the worst on this field and that’s saying something cruel.”
If not the worst, appearances said, certainly the angriest, the unhappiest, the least comfortable in his own skin.
The McClaren crisis of confidence will meander on for some time, give or take an eruption of brilliant expression against a glorified pub team Andorra or another pratfall against the likes of Estonia, but for one on Saturday night to most trouble those who care passionately about the English game was the truly terrible decline of Wayne Rooney.
Reports of his angry reaction to McClaren’s criticisms after his latest anonymous performance in an England shirt were scarcely earth-shattering in the level of their surprise. Rooney has rarely looked so out of sorts and spirit. He ran close to serious problems when allowing flash points to smoulder and there were times when it seemed that he might even headbutt his own shadow.
A week earlier he had shown on behalf of Manchester United more than a flash of his old splendour against Tal Ben Haim of Bolton Wanderers. But when the big, shrewdly abrasive man reappeared in the blue and white of Israel you might have thought he’d become a giant of the game rather than merely a competent pro. It is as though Rooney can occasionally unlock the iron chains of memory and find again the brilliant exuberance which made him the greatest, most exciting talent bred in these islands since Paul Gascoigne. But like the tragically ill-starred Gazza, the wonder kid is besieged, it seems, by some of the most oppressive demons since the ones who hunted down even the genius of George Best.
There are no reports of Rooney and wine and roses. No suggestion that he is failing in any overt way to cope with the onslaught of wealth and celebrity that first propelled him from the back streets of Merseyside. Only it is football, that seems for most of the time now, too much, which is both the irony and the tragedy.
The whole point of Rooney, as it was of the young Best and Gazza, was that he adored to play football.
It welled out of him so beautifully, and with such originality at times, that Arsène Wenger said he was the best young English player he had ever seen. Johnny Giles, a flint-hearted judge of what he considers football pretensions, came away from one match saying that he had seen one of the authentic greats, someone who will reasonably progress and would surely walk naturally in the footsteps of the Maradonas and the Cruyffs, even a Pele.
Today Giles, despite the currently unpromising evidence, does not go back on that first assessment. But he admits it has become worryingly vulnerable to the ebb of Rooney’s performance not just for a few weeks, a few months, but the best part of a whole season.
Says Giles: “It’s very hard criticising a player like Rooney going through a dry spell. Unlike a midfielder he cannot go out and shape a game. Even though he is brilliant in his talent he is more dependent on the rest of the team and let’s be honest, the English team is not one to bring the best out of anybody at the moment. Still, the same can’t be said of the United situation where he has also put in some performances which have made him look quite unrecognisable. Sometimes in football you have the sense that someone is not just quite right in himself, that there is something running deeper than mere form.
“In this boy’s case I don’t think anyone, even Ferguson is at the moment able to put his finger on it. But I know how it was when I played and you see somebody underperforming so much and you look at him and say, ‘this lad is just not right, there is something weighing him down.’
“I don’t know Wayne Rooney, I just look at him as a great admirer of his talent and I have those old suspicions. I’d like to think he could walk out in a few days’ time and make us all look silly. Certainly he looked a lot better last weekend against Bolton. There was some of the old wit, the old bite, but then it just seems to disappear again.”
James Lawton, The Independent
(Wayne Rooney was 17 when he made his England debut, Paul Gascoigne 21, Rooney’s age now. David Beckham was 23 when sent off against Argentina in 1978.)