Cult Grade: Too Close to the Masterpiece
It is my sad duty to announce that Wayne Rooney is good at football. And not only good at football: he is the finest English footballer to ever live. I loathe this opinion. I hate it. But I am forced by law to write it, because it is objectively correct.
In his youth, Wayne Rooney attacked the ball like a pitbull grabs at a hen: instinctive, primal, with explosive results, blood all over the place. The mellow mid-career Rooney, one perfect third of that Ronaldo–Rooney–Tevez triumvirate, was something different: the ball, around him, slowed and dipped and did wonderful things, pinged into the net at speeds and angles that seemed impossible. Rooney possessed that odd knack known only to the best – the very, very best, the Messis and the Maradonas and the Ronaldinhos – where the ball always bounces for them, as if charmed.
And now, when we must admit that Wayne Rooney is on his descent, there are still moments where the ball comes near him and he does something so slick – just a touch, kills it dead, then zips a pass out to a teammate and moves, Wayne Rooney moving like a man chasing after a train, like his limbs are trying to run a marathon but his torso is trying desperately to explode – and you see a glimpse of what he was, what he always was and then was trained even more to be: an absolute, top pedigree, world class player.
But then he also trod on Ricardo Carvalho's balls once and is really, really shit. So you see how Wayne Rooney is a man of depths, of extremes, of contrasts.
We are too close to the masterpiece to truly see it. In this analogy, and bear with me, we are an art critic and Wayne Rooney is the art. Wayne Rooney is the Mona Lisa, or something, although instead of smiling beatifically he is something else, his large freckled forehead scowling down into his nose, or his mouth is somehow so small and angry it seems it might suck in his ears, but a masterpiece nonetheless, and we, the art critics, have our nose up to it. That's where we are with Wayne Rooney – still only 31, still at Manchester United, still claws-on to a top-level career, still making his living as a footballer.
We will only be able to appreciate him truly, for what he was, in 10 years, long after next season's inevitable move to China, or the USA, two sputtering campaigns out there, wherever he ends up, making mega-money to occasionally shank sitters well wide. Then maybe he goes on a little run of goalscoring form, puts four past Guangzhou Evergrande, and the year is 2021 and England are faltering towards the end of a World Cup qualifying campaign, and there is talk – not whispers, actual talk – of maligned England boss Frank Lampard calling his old friend Rooney up to the fray. And he scores, inevitably, in a must-win 1-0 against Slovenia, ticking his England goals tally to a never-to-be-bettered 57. Then he retires, his knees gone, at 36. He's out of the public eye for a half-season before Rooney, hair finally shaved down to nothing, sits upright in a black-shirt-grey-trousers combo as an emergency pundit on Monday Night Football. And it's only then that we begin to realise.
With the appearance of the next Young English Hope – some lad called Liam Felstead-Wickham, or something, just 16 and scoring two on his debut for Everton, born in the year of our lord 2010 – Wayne Rooney and the Flabby Banterous Remains of John Terry and Danny Murphy, for some reason, all chuckle on the sofa, and someone says: "He reminds me of a young Wayne Rooney, wouldn't you say, Wayne?" Wayne demurs, rubs his nose with a single thumb and says: 'Well yeah, you know, obviously it's early days, but he's a good lad and a good boy – a lot of the coaches at Everton are dead excited about him, you know – so yeah.' And then they will run a highlights package of Wayne Rooney's career, Sky will, in glorious hyper HD – I mean, we'll probably all have 3D TVs by then, so imagine it in 3D, you with your crisps on the sofa watching as Wayne Rooney pops out of your television and scores a hat-trick against Fenerbache – and that's when you'll know. That's when we will – all of us – take a deep breath in and say:
Wayne Rooney was really fucking good at football!
But, right now, we're too close to it to know.
Point of Entry: Both Brilliant and Shit
Here's the story: 16-year-old Rooney went from 'whispered-about schoolboy' to 'Everton's great white hope' within the space of a month, making his debut in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham at the start of the 2002-03 season, then scoring two in the League Cup at Wrexham, then pelting the ball through Sol Campbell and David Seaman at once and shattering Arsenal's 30-game unbeaten run in doing so, and then, all of a sudden, we all knew about him. Rooney appeared at once unhewn and raw-edged and also magnificent, a running theme throughout his career. A lot of the uneasy chat about Rooney being a legend really seems to hinge on the fact that he appears brilliant and shit at the same time, and has done throughout his career (his 15 goals in 67 games for Everton is classic 'promising youngster if not amazing goalscorer' territory; his post-Euro 2004 England form has essentially been non-existent; and he is still an important player for Manchester United despite being consistently demonstrably bad at football). Two seasons at Everton and an England debut, followed by an incredible tournament in Portugal, meant that, inevitably, Rooney was ready for a step up, and he eventually moved to United for £25.6 million at just 18. And there he's been, chugging away, ever since.
We talk about Rooney fulfilling or not fulfilling his potential as if winning every major domestic trophy and being his club and country's finest ever goalscorer is somehow falling short. His United career has encapsulated everything – five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, one Champions League, the Club World Cup, once, if that counts; red cards, injuries, goal droughts; transfer requests, the captaincy; that Casillero del Diablo ad – but arguably the moment that defined it was the cruciate injury he sustained against Bayern Munich in 2010. Rooney damaged his ankle in the March quarter-final, putting his World Cup place in doubt, but then, weirdly, showed up for the second leg just a week later. That's Rooney: in the prime of his career, the kind of player you can talk about making mega-money moves to other teams – that rare bird, 'the English footballer you can actually envision playing for a Spanish team' – but struggling on through a sub-par patch of fitness, because he had to, because he was a dynamo, because he loved to play. He wouldn't score for the rest of the season and had an absolutely shit World Cup. And, as much as I would like to end this paragraph with 'and he was never the same afterwards', he scored 27 goals the next season, so: what the fuck do I know?
Nothing about Rooney makes sense. He is often described as 'the last street footballer' – as academies gobble up youngsters and prime them for glossy careers from ever younger ages, Rooney is the last throwback to an era where kids actually liked playing football – but that tag seems to belie something else, something that makes him both messiah and villain in the English tabloids that love to build him up as much as tear him down. Rooney, the most exquisite player of an English generation, has resisted all attempts to polish his working-class roots away; he is, ultimately, just a half-shy lad from Croxteth who has scored more goals for Manchester United than anyone, ever, has scored more goals for England than anyone, ever, and stamped on Ricardo Carvalho's balls once. This is what makes him cult: that his highlight reel is one of extremes, from madness to majesty, and in the middle there's Rooney, doing that seagull-flap-face-scrunched-up thing he does at referees when a decision doesn't go his way, glowering pink-red in the middle of the field, and then scoring a brace in the Champions League, and earning £300,000 for it.
The Moment: That Overhead Kick Against City, Possibly Via a Shin
He shinned it. He shinned it. I am convinced he shinned it – I will go to my grave swearing that he shinned it – but the moment will always be That Overhead Kick Against City. Every single element of football came together at once, like the ending of three blockbuster movies, maybe four. You've got the evil-forces power beneath dark clouds on the near horizon (City, pre-title, shaping up under Sheikh Mansour); you've got the apple-and-Eden temptation that nearly lured Rooney across town just a year earlier (he re-signed, breaking United's wage structure in doing so, United's last talisman after Ronaldo); you've got the fact that a make-or-break February title four-pointer was poised at 1-1; you've got that classic, classic, United late goal. And then you have Wayne Rooney, backwards, for some reason, mid-air out of nowhere, and Nani has floated the ball in, and pow. He shinned it, definitely, because it pinged in off his shin, but that was it: a goal for Rooney, three points for United, a stride in the direction of Fergie's penultimate title, and Old Trafford explodes. These are the moments Rooney was made for. So much of the strength of his career comes from the fact that he's basically a headline writer's wet dream.
"Let me tell you a story about Wayne. We were training at Everton's old training ground, at Bellefield, and Wayne would train with us every day and he'd be kicking the balls everywhere. I'd be shouting at him: 'Wayne!' But he just wanted to kick them.
"Then we had a game one day and Wayne had the ball close to the byline and he chipped the goalie. All the staff were watching and you could see them all look up the line at each other.
"They all had the same look on their face: 'Did you see that? Did that really happen?' Everyone turned and looked. No one shouted, 'What a goal!' Maybe everyone was wondering whether he really mean it. But he did. From that moment we were all thinking: 'Wow, what a player. What a player we have'." — David Moyes