The Inevitable Wayne Rooney Obituary
This has been a quiet summer so far, but last weekend finally saw what will most likely come to be remembered as the transfer story of the summer. After thirteen years at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney is returning to Goodison Park to rejoin Everton, the club with which he started his career more than a decade and a half ago. And, since only six football clubs in England really matter any more, the press is having a field day with its analyses of Rooney’s legacy with Manchester United and England, but there is something of a problem with this, because seldom before has a player simultaneously more closely under the microscope and worse understood than in the case of a player who could never deliver the expectations that were placed on his shoulders when he was no more than sixteen or seventeen years old.
So, let’s get the completely obvious out of the way first, then. Over the course of thirteen years at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney won five Premier League titles, an FA Cup, the Europa League, the Champions League and the World Club Cup. He became the record goalscorer for his national team in an era during which that team entered a period of steady decline from which it has not yet recovered, and was the record goalscorer for – arguably, because this is malleable description that can be disputed in as many different ways as will suit the argument of its protagonist – the most successful club side in the history of English football, and he captained both. He didn’t win anything with his national team, but in that respect he’s no different to any England player of the last half-century.
But expectations of a sky-high nature have always been a part of Wayne Rooney’s football career. For anybody too young or too disinterested to be able to remember, it might be difficult to fully understand the extent to which that burden was placed upon him. A little historical context is important, here. England performed reasonably well at the 2002 World Cup finals, eventually succumbing to Brazil in the quarter-finals because of a fundamental inability to break back into the game after Brazil came from behind to take the lead. Rooney seemed to offer a one-man fix to this problem in his ability to simply get hold of the ball and “make things happen”, and so it proved at Euro 2004, where his performances in England’s three group matches against France, Switzerland and Croatia were sprinkled with a thrilling carefree abandon before injury took him out of the quarter-final defeat against Portugal.
It was that tournament which sent the hype machine into overdrive. The story of the England national team over the previous two decades had been one of ebb and flow, from the relative success of a World Cup semi-final in 1990 to the failure of Oslo just three years later, from the unexpected semi-final of Euro 1996 to an inability to get out of the group stages just four years later. The 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 felt like an upswing in comparison with what had preceded it, and the fact that this was a newer generation of players – who would eventually carry the “golden generation” name in the manner of Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders – gave the impression to some that the England team was a jigsaw with one piece missing.
But no-one ever seemed to pause to consider whether this was a reasonable level of expectation to put on any individual player. When the fortunes of the England team began to wane again, Rooney was the favoured cannon fodder for the savagery of the press. Every mistake was pounced upon. Every issue with his temperament was a national disaster, an affront seemingly taken personally by people with less at stake in what had happened than the player himself. It began, of course, with the sending off against Portugal at the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup, but continued through him losing his temper with the television cameras in South Africa four years later and has arrived at a point at which it often felt as though he was little more than a figure of ridicule by the time the Manchester United empire seemed to be crumbling in the middle of this decade.
In the same summer as the Portugal European Championships, Rooney was transferred from Everton to Manchester United for £25.6m. The move to the bigger club, the likelihood of playing regularly in the Champions League, these were factors that would surely only further improve him as a player. The records broken and medals won would indicate that he very much reached the fullness of his early potential as a player, but there can be little question that he never received the praise that he deserved for his achievements whilst the club was still hoovering up trophies. Responsibility for Manchester United’s post-Ferguson decline can hardly be laid at his door, but it hasn’t stopped some from trying. The truth of the matter is that correlation doesn’t always equal causation and his decline as a player was a coincidence rather than either a cause or symptom of the club’s relative fall from grace.
Did people feel that Rooney had personally let them down? Was this merely a matter of expectations not being met, or was there something deeper-seated at play? After all, Rooney was a Liverpudlian of Irish descent, and it always felt as though there was an element of prejudice held against him that wasn’t applied to the shortcomings of others. This may or may not be true and it may or may not be fair, but there is a case for saying that Wayne Rooney was always held to a more exacting standard than just about any other British player of his age and was pilloried to a far greater extent than others when he failed to meet those impossible standards. We might even argue that Rooney was something of a canary for the age of social media. The savagery of some of the attacks on him would tend to suggest that his treatment in the press from 2006 was a precursor to where we are today in terms of the treatment of many public figures through the likes of Facebook or Twitter.
The transfer itself looks like it could be good business for both clubs. It had been clear for the previous couple of season’s that Rooney’s time at Old Trafford was coming to a close, and Jose Mourinho deserves considerable credit for having managed his exit from the club with a minimal amount of upset. Those in the press who’d been sharpening their pencils with glee at the prospect of describing him as a “mercenary” for leaving for China or the USA have been silenced. In Romelu Lukaku, United certainly seem to have traded up, but they’ve done so at a cost. Everton will undoubtedly be grateful for the £75m-£90m and may well be able to find a new role for him within the team, and perhaps Rooney himself will find a role at Everton that brings out the best in the closing years of his career and will perhaps set him up with something to do for afterwards, as well.
Maybe it is simply the case that the heroes of the past that Wayne Rooney eclipsed, both with Manchester United and England, couldn’t have been heroes had they lived under the extreme microscope that players live under today. Everybody apart from regular match-going fans saw so little of the great players of the past that our recollections of the likes of Bobby Charlton, say, have a dream-like quality that they cannot have in the twenty-first century. Perhaps Wayne Rooney will come to be remembered as the either the last analogue or first digital footballer. No matter what else happens, there’s a chance that he won’t be remembered as either Manchester United or England’s record goalscorer and that in itself is… weird, if you think about it.
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