Wayne Rooney’s Final Curtain
Sometimes, your perception of somebody can get stuck on a loop and become outdated. I tend to think of the public attitude towards Wayne Rooney in this respect. Somewhere in our collective subconscience, he’s still a precocious, petulant kid with the sum total of his youthful misdemeanours continuing to play on a loop within our attitudes towards him even though he’s well into his thirties, now. It’s not remotely fair on him, but it’s true that a large number of us hold these outdated views.
My reflex reaction to the news that last night’s friendly match against the United States of America was to be treated as a farewell game for him was a mild turning of the stomach. And there was a degree of cynicism in the FA’s confirmation that, whilst the match itself would promote his charity, the Wayne Rooney Foundation, none of the actual money from the sale of tickets would be going to his cause. Promotion for any charity is usually a positive thing, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills. With so little information to initially go on, it felt as though this could result in a sudden undoing of goodwill, a potentially disruptive sop to yesterday’s news shortly before an important match. With a “winner takes all” match against Croatia at the weekend to follow, might the return of this ghost of the past – albeit a recent one – prove to be a distraction from the job ahead?
It’s easy to think of football in completely abstract terms such as this. About the game. The morale. The fitness. And we do so as though they’re dislocated from the humans that make it happen. Reading the post-match interviews with England’s still otherwise young team served as a reminder, though. These were the players whose first recollections of football may even have involved Wayne Rooney. He’s a generation’s idol, and that generation is just breaking into the England team. For those amongst us otherwise preoccupied with raging at the dying of the light he might well be the sum total of his career, but to the young lads now playing for the national team – and especially those who’ve started their national and international careers over the last couple of years or so – this was an opportunity to play alongside one of the defining professional footballers of their childhood.
It’s hardly as though they’re lacking in confidence, either. They’re fresh off the back of a win against Spain that felt like brushing the post-summertime blues, and during that summertime they made the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in almost three decades, as well. There was no need for anyone to feel any degree of fragility over their place in their chosen profession. As the days progressed, and ultimately as last night progressed, I became at first becoming quite comfortable with it being played as a farewell to Wayne Rooney, and by the end was quite glad that it happened.
Rooney pulled off one shot that forced a save from the American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and it wasn’t difficult to see why his retirement from the national team was so necessary. But the USA were only moderate opposition, and England’s younger stars most certainly did twinkle as brightly as ever. Jadon Sancho, making his debut after having sparkled for Borussia Dotmund in the Bundesliga, was effervescent, a blur of legs and feet at times, whilst Callum Wilson was tireless up front and deserved his late goal. With another coming from another young player, Trent Alexander-Arnold, last night’s match was as much a reminder of the potential of the future as of the potential of the past.
But it is worth us pausing to consider Wayne Rooney’s international career. One hundred and twenty caps and fifty-three goals is a remarkable performance by any standard, and much as there’s a sense of disappointment that England couldn’t build the team around him that they might, his end of international career tally more than matches our hopes for him when he first exploded onto the scene at sixteen years of age. It felt, for much of the last decade and a half, that the hope that England could actually win a major tournament was sliding from view after the relative optimism of the mid to late 1990s had slid from view, but Rooney stuck with it, through Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson, still committed to the cause, even if it felt as though not everybody else always was.
Perhaps his greatest performances in an England shirt came right at the start of his international career at the 2004 European Championships, where he was almost unplayable during the group stages, before injury did for him and England were knocked out by the host nation, Portugal. There would be flashes, further down the line, but at Euro 2004 it looked for a while as though there’d be no-one stopping him throughout the entire tournament. And this reflected the reaction that he received when he made his first appearances in the Premier League a couple of years earlier, the best known of which was probably his thirty yard screamer against Arsenal in 2002, a goal which hinted at the extravagance of his ability.
And yes, it was a slightly gauche decision, to let him play this one game as an effective testimonial. But getting angry about this feels in some way performative and unnecessary. Our social media lives are perpetual cycles of outrage, which we’re expected to fully participate in, and frequently do. On this occasion, though, my personal well ran dry. With clubs bending and breaking rules all over the place, the Premier League giving millions of pounds to its former Chief Executive whilst continuing to not even pay the small amount of money that it had promised the grassroots of the game, and the biggest clubs apparently intending to take their ball away to in order to quite having to share any television money with smaller clubs, football feels like a cesspit at the moment, on the brink of becoming permanently and irrevocably sullied. Against such a background (and that’s before we even take into account the state of our broader political situation), criticism of this one gesture in this one friendly match of little consequence feels somewhat silly.
It’s important for us to remember that none of this is easy. For all that we criticise professional footballers for their shortcomings, the ability to do what Wayne Rooney did (and has been continuing to do in MLS for DC United) is a rare thing and even the “raw talent” that players have is seldom enough to guarantee a career in the game of any sort whatsoever. Professional football is littered with half-formed memories of players who might have made it were it not for bad luck, injury, or the misapplication of lavish skills. Wayne Rooney didn’t play six hundred times for Manchester United and more than one hundred times for England because of some sort of munificence on the part of a succession of club and international managers, whose jobs ultimately depended upon him being good enough to do the job. He did so because he was good enough, and he was good enough over a period of time that even the vast majority of players find impossible to maintain.
So, with so much bad faith in the world at the moment, I’ll make no apology for enjoying the spectacle of a young, talented and effervescent group of players shuffling along to say goodbye to a player who was most likely one of the most influential of their childhoods before going on to demonstrate why there may for once be something of a positive future for the England national football team to look forward to. It’s not much in comparison with the grindingly draining churn of news stories that seem to be instilling us all with degrees of stress for various different reasons at the moment, but it’s something, and at the moment the temptation to cling onto anything positive in this world can feel almost overwhelming, at times.