When Wayne Rooney’s career comes to an end, his footballing obituaries will consist of contrasting paragraphs. Hyperbole and lavish praise will garnish the first few, as they talk of who he was as a teenager. The goal against Arsenal will be remembered, as will the debut hat-trick for Manchester United and his fearless performance for England against Turkey at the Stadium of Light.
But then a wistfulness will creep into the text and the tone will start to reflect the position he now occupies: Rooney the physically flawed athlete, he of the wildly oscillating form and the long, barren spells in front of goals.
This process has already begun. Rooney has been on the cusp of the England goal-scoring record for some time now and as he’s approached Sir Bobby Charlton’s historic landmark the narrative around him has started to become prematurely reflective. As real as his achievement is – and by the time Rooney does actually retire he will likely be well-clear at the top of that list – there’s a sense that it’s only being grudgingly recognised.
It’s a record with an asterisk – not in a Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong way, but an asterisk nonetheless.
On Saturday morning, in anticipation of the record falling, the graphics were out and the caveats were being prepared. Wayne Rooney, as we all know, has an underwhelming record in international tournaments. He has scored just six times at European Champions and World Cups combined and that, quite reasonably, will be mentioned any time his international career is discussed.
That’s not really the point, though, because casting Rooney as simply a flat-track bully is reductive. While a lot of his goals were scored in friendlies and many more were mined from weak qualifying groups, his final tournament performances have often been reflective either of his physical condition or what England as a team were capable of producing.
In latter years, it’s become fashionable to claim that Rooney was really just a mind-trick and that his early-career excellence was an illusion. Just as there is a tendency to overhype homegrown players there is also a contrasting movement which dismisses English players habitually and which rubbishes them on account of their passport.
It’s snobbery; yes, British fans are often very insular in their perceptions and they are frequently guilty of determining a player’s value without placing him in the proper context, but the young Wayne Rooney wasn’t a mirage – he was one of the most fiercely dynamic and ambitious players of his generation. He wasn’t just a battering-ram and neither was he just the sum of his size or power, he was technically very capable and was frequently deserving of the status he was afforded.
Yes, I know.
What should have been his prime years have been blighted by frequent bouts of clunkiness and, it appears, that the longer his career goes on, that harder it will be to remember what it once promised to be. He is less a poor imitation of what he was and more a completely different player: heavy-footed, broken, and slapping limply against the passing of time.
And maybe that’s the root cause of the ambivalence towards his record: Rooney, for England at least, has been a tease. His Manchester United career may be decorated with European and domestic honours, but his 106 caps for his country have added up to almost nothing.
Sir Bobby Charlton was a World Cup winner, Gary Lineker won the Golden Boot at the 1986 tournament and Jimmy Greaves’ 44 goals came from only 57 caps; Rooney has moved up to and beyond those players in an utterly joyless way. As far as record-breaking goes, it’s been an incredibly banal process.
But it shouldn’t have been this way. His should have been an international career full of highs and one which occurred at a hundred miles an hour. His performances for his country should all have been as feverish as the first few and had they been so, regardless of what they had led to, his plod into the record books would have been met with more than just an empty gaze.
49 goals in 106 appearances; how many of either do you actually remember?
This is a pedant’s argument – of course it is – but the problem with Rooney has never been that he’s a fraud or that his ability was overstated, it’s that he’s spent the last decade letting go of what he held in the palm of his hand as a teenager.
The record, as and when it falls, will superficially be a monument to his career but, just like everything else relating to Wayne Rooney, the pertinent detail will be in the fine print.