Most people would concede that Wayne Rooney has seen better days as a footballer. Most people would also concede that Wayne Rooney is now exhibiting clear signs of terminal decline.
It’s hardly an original discussion. Rooney’s flat-line in form has been so protracted that not a single inch of this topic remains unexplored. Theories have been written which have attempted to explain the malaise and remedies have been suggested to cure it; Rooney attracts a lot of interest and that will always be the case.
But he attracts interest from only certain parts of the community – or, at least, he is only assessed in an honest way by certain parts of the community.
This season, he has been hopeless. No hyperbole. He has the first touch of a trampoline, he runs as if tethered to a parachute, and even the consistent staples of his game – the goals and those raking cross-field passes – are really a distant memory. None of that should provoke a wholesale re-evaluation of what Rooney has been, because he’s done wonderful things during his career and, beyond inheriting the England goal-scoring record from Sir Bobby Charlton, his medal collection casts him as a modern great. In recent years, there’s been a rather contrived effort to diminish who he was during his prime and rewrite the impact he made throughout his early-to-mid twenties; it’s fashionable, but it’s wrong – everyone who was there knows what they saw.
Conversely though, there now seems to be a motion to deny in a different way. While writers and fans have been liberally expressing their concerns about Wayne Rooney for a while, it’s staggering how little attention his regression seems to be attracting elsewhere. Louis van Gaal is obviously reticent to drop him from Manchester United’s starting eleven and not even the loss of a limb would dissuade Roy Hodgson from starting him in the European Championship but elsewhere, on television and in punditry studios, there’s almost a strange, Orwellian fear of acknowledging his decline.
It’s hard to write about because it’s very difficult to explain. When Wayne Rooney is playing live on Sky or on BT Sport, he seems to be subject to a different set of conditions. Ex-players and co-commentators are in their jobs to give opinions – in a very loud and attention-seeking way in 2015 – and yet when presented with an obvious symptom of Rooney’s professional mortality, they typically offer little more than a slightly uncomfortable silence.
“It’s not been one of his better games, it’s not quite going for Wayne Rooney at the moment.”
That’s as harsh as it ever seems to get. Whether it’s the excellent Monday Night Football, the half-time analysis of a game in which Rooney is under-performing, or just a shouty Robbie Savage column, that strange sense that something is being avoided hangs in the air.
This week, England head into an international period and among the decision to be made by Roy Hodgson is how to use Jamie Vardy. On Saturday, the Leicester City forward scored for the ninth Premier League game in succession and further established himself as the form forward in the country. Similarly, although not quite as prolific as Vardy, Tottenham’s Harry Kane has returned to goal-scoring form and has regained some of the momentum which shot him into the game’s stratosphere last season.
Both will play for England during the upcoming friendlies against Spain and France, yet both will likely be used in a way that ultimately defers to Wayne Rooney.
Vardy, in spite of what he has done for his club, is – at twenty-eight – perhaps not worthy of extended experimentation. He suits domestic English football and while his pressing game would be useful to a side who are likely to spend most of Euro 2016 in counter-attacking mode, maybe there are reasonable doubts over his international suitability. Kane, similarly, has been talismanic for Tottenham and has taken his chances for England economically, but his CV is perhaps not yet deep enough to be his country’s primary forward.
But, almost perversely, there seems to be a public refusal to acknowledge that Rooney is becoming expendable and that, given the chance, one or both of those players could provide England with something which is currently of more value. That’s not to say that either will reach an equivalent level in the game or ever touch a European Cup or a Premier League winner’s medal, but that – right now – they could contribute in a way that might improve the side.
It’s not even a discussion. Sure, in the darker corners of the internet and in the less visible parts of the media it is, but at a higher level it appears to be an outlawed conversation – something that everyone is aware of, but which they feel unable to verbalise. It’s as if, rather than confronting the problem, there’s a naive hope that if it’s ignored it will just go away. If Rooney’s deterioration isn’t spoken of publicly, he will eventually just revert to being the player he once was.
It’s hopelessly naive, but yet that’s been the national team’s pervasive approach across the last twenty years. Players aren’t treated on merit; once they acquire a certain amount of gravitas, they are allowed to make the decision about when and where their international careers finish. It happened with David Beckham, it happened with Steven Gerrard, and now it’s happening with Rooney: the ego comes first, the team second.
Rather than being about the specific player, maybe this is a habitual problem which has been bred in this country. Reputation seems to have become so important and established personalities are so infallible, that we allow certain players to exist above the accountability line and to trade forever on what they once were.
There are many problems with English football – and many which lurk far beneath the surface and demand decades of corrected thinking – but this is one of them: a self-built obstruction to meritocracy.
This has to be the last time this happens.