The Paradox Of Wayne Rooney


The career of Wayne Rooney remains one of the fascinating in British football history. Dubbed ‘the White Pele’ early in his career, the expectation was that he would go on to do things beyond his peers.

He certainly did that. He won every trophy available with Manchester United – joining a list of players smaller than you might originally think – and broke the goalscoring records of club and country.

And yet there remains the argument he didn’t reach his full potential. That there was even more expected of him than was delivered. More league titles? International success? Most definitely something extra. Critics use the examples of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, those number-defying freaks of nature, to illustrate the level Rooney might have reached if he had been more disciplined or even more dedicated.

But where Ronaldo and Messi were plucked from their home countries and catapulted in a life with a singular mission and vision, Rooney largely remained a product of the streets he was from, affected by the stresses of the personal, private and public attention that came his way due to his abnormal ability with a football.

He has recently been open about these stresses and their impacts – his admission of drinking between games to try to deal with the stresses gives us an obvious answer as to why he retired at a fairly normal age and Cristiano Ronaldo continues to be first choice striker as he just turned 27.

Much of that pressure you could say was self-inflicted. He made mistakes. The personal ones were well-publicised. The opinion about his potential and how high his ceiling was is also heavily influenced by the decisions he made to request transfers from both Everton and Manchester United, upsetting healthy percentages of those support bases, with some never forgiving him.

Rooney was one of the most evocative players in United history. His contribution is measured in memories and not numbers – even though the numbers are impressive.

You remember the torn shirt, playground feel of his debut. You remember the temperament of his 19th birthday, winning the penalty after Sol Campbell poleaxed him (!) and scoring in the last minute to rile Arsenal fans for the first time in a red shirt. The goal at the Kop end. The goals against Middlesbrough in the Cup. The volley against Newcastle. He was still a teenager.

They said that growing up changed his game. He certainly developed a responsible outlook when it came to his team. He made positional sacrifices, doing the job asked of him to the high standard demanded of him by the level he was playing at.

United have only had two periods in their entire history you could contend were as successful as the period between 2006 and 2009; a glittering age with Rooney the heartbeat of a team packed with talent.

And then came that first transfer request. Ronaldo and Tevez had gone – replaced by Valencia and Owen. Supporters protested in early 2010, asking where the Ronaldo money had gone. They rejoiced when David Beckham wore a green and gold scarf thrown to him by the stands during his return with AC Milan – and recoiled when Rooney asked the same questions as them later in the year.

The problem with doing that as a player is that there has to be some form of change, some form of ultimatum to affect it – and it usually comes in the form of a new contract, new players or a transfer request.

All of that would have been fair – but it came on the back of a period where Rooney had been ineffectual himself on the pitch. He’d gone to the World Cup with an injury and upset many Three Lions fans by criticising them directly into a television camera. United fans rallied around him. There was another personal indiscretion early in the season and the player was saved from a trip to Everton where the atmosphere would have been unpleasant – Alex Ferguson dressed the absence up as an injury, and from then there was a strange atmosphere brewing until the transfer request episode became public.

This writer took it upon himself to write ‘an open letter’ (I know, it wasn’t really an attempt for him to read it, more a rhetorical cleansing of thoughts) to Rooney, more or less explaining that this was why people were so upset, and that he stood to lose plenty if he turned his back on the legacy he had created and was creating. Would it mean more to him to win two more league titles with United or City? Would a hundred goals for City have meant more than breaking the all time record for United? Would a move to Spain be wise considering that he did have a conflicting relationship with supporters and at the time even Cristiano Ronaldo was being booed by Real Madrid fans? People were upset that he would do this after the support had backed him so much.

We all know what happened next. Ferguson played it perfectly. Rooney signed a new contract. Plenty of supporters never forgave him. That has an impact on how his form in 2011 is remembered – it’s arguably as influential as Eric Cantona’s in 1996, but isn’t remembered as fondly. The sensational overhead kick against City. The scintillating hat-trick and the ‘what expletive what’ into the camera at West Ham. Nineteen shaved into the chest. The influential goals in the run to the Champions League final. He was singularly magnificent.

Then Ferguson retired, after one more title each, and the decision again for Rooney was : do I lead this new period in the club’s history with almost certain uncertainty, and reach personal milestones in the process, or do I go elsewhere?

He stayed – and was handsomely rewarded for it – eventually breaking those goalscoring records for United and for England.

He left United in 2017 at the age of 31 but it could be argued that his decline started at the same time as the club’s own, around 2013 – by which time he’d played 400 club games at the highest level. The consequence of those excesses that would still be seen as fairly conservative and professional by the man on the street were taking their toll and although he still could contribute it was clear there was an impact.

For England, Rooney was almost a transitional figure between two generations – the ‘Golden’ generation, a team of talented individuals who never seemed to get on and where at their best when Rooney played for a club that was unaffected by the tribal loyalties between Liverpool and Manchester United, and then this new generation that plays more like a team and probably suited his style more; by that time, he was on the way out, and where the 2018 World Cup should have been his swansong, he wasn’t even considered for the squad by that time.

Neither Ronaldo or Messi has a World Cup in their bulging trophy cabinets but they have a handful of Ballon d’Ors and European Cups each to console them. Rooney has one European Cup, but still has his own unique place in United and England history as the current leading goalscorer of all time. Talking about numbers seems as reductive for Rooney as it does for the other two.

Perhaps it’s a British tendency to judge people and pour scorn on them for what they are not instead of celebrating them for what they are and what they do, just as much as it is a national pastime to build someone up and knock them down. If that’s the case, history will judge Rooney more kindly, surely.

As he speaks with clarity and honesty, there is a new intrigue to see what the future holds for him as manager.

Speaking to those who coached him, those who played with him, and those who played against him for the biography I have just written, it’s clear that there is a student of the game who already is well-educated in it. His positional understanding is a rare thing, his reading of in-game situations even rarer, and his attitude to the good of the game from both the point of view of the sport and the player is refreshing in a generation where people seem to be in it for themselves. These are additional qualities you don’t always get from top level managers so if he is able to marry them with all the other attributes – you know, winning games and playing well – then there is every reason to believe he will be one of the most influential figures of the next generation off the pitch.

It is because he is such an evocative figure that I felt compelled to write the biography. I wanted to show that in a sport increasingly dominated by numbers, it is still at heart one most enjoyed because of the feeling you get from it. And who could argue Rooney’s status as a player who most certainly gave more than his fair share of memorable moments?

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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