In the pantheon of the greats of world football, certain names have cemented their place. Legends of the game such as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Best have reserved eternal legendary status. Even as they still perform at the highest level, Ronaldo and Messi have shown enough sustained brilliance to be included in this revered list. However, one name which many predicted would sit comfortably in this company is absent; Wayne Rooney.
Wayne Rooney was destined to be the greatest British player of his generation ever since he burst onto the scene as a sixteen-year-old with his last minute winner against Arsenal in the autumn of 2002. The fact that few eyebrows were raised when Manchester United paid almost £27 million for him two years later demonstrated the widespread belief that he was going to be something special, a talent that would dominate the game, domestically, in Europe and internationally for years to come.
But has he done so? We examine the career of Wayne Rooney up to now as he prepares for what could be a defining tournament towards his legacy.
Perhaps it can be seen as a compliment to Rooney that after winning five Premier League titles, A Champions League, two League Cups, a World Club Cup and numerous individual accolades, including PFA Player’s Player of the Year in 2010, doubts still persist over whether he has been a good player or a great player.
A good player inspires himself, a great player inspires others and in the big games that decided the outcome of all those titles and other titles that were lost, only in glimpses did Rooney truly elevate himself above those around him.
Hat-tricks against the likes Fenerbahce, Bolton, and a skeleton Arsenal side in the famous 8-2 drubbing grabbed the headlines but when United really needed him to perform, against Man City in the title decider of 11/12 and against the mighty Barcelona in Rome in the Champions League final of 09, Rooney was marked absent. Lionel Messi starred in that particular game.
Far too often, he contributed little when a spark of magic was required, but the flashes of brilliance that he did produce from time to time somehow made those huge failures seem less significant than they really were. Ask anyone for the first memory that comes to mind when they think of Wayne Rooney’s career and they’ll more than likely say his overhead kick against City in 2011 or even his half volley from the halfway line against West Ham this season just gone, not his all too frequent no-shows in the big games or his decision to, petulantly, twice ask for a transfer from Manchester United.
No, the perception out there is that Rooney really is a modern great. His best moments have been so spectacular that they have over shadowed the mediocrity that many of his performances have been blighted by.
Many people will point to the 2009/2010 campaign in refute of this argument. This was Rooney’s most impressive in a red shirt during which he scored 34 goals in all competitions. But, if Rooney really is a great of the game, then why has he not been able to replicate the form he showed throughout that campaign on a consistent basis?
Throughout that season, his very presence on the pitch struck fear into opposing defenders. His miraculous return from injury in time for the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich had the German defence at sixes and sevens for the first half hour, as Rooney dictated the game to his tempo, a game United would have won, had it not been for Rafael’s sending off.
However, none of the above legends of the game earned their place in history by having just one outstanding season. What has been Messi’s most impressive campaign for Barca or Ronaldo’s most prolific for Real? It is impossible to say for definite offhand, because they both perform to such a high standard every season that the brilliance has fused into brilliant careers. That is not something that can be said of Rooney.
The performance of the English national team in tournament after tournament is mirrored in that of their number ten – huge expectation invariably followed by even greater disappointment. Bar the European Championships of 2004, when it can be argued that Rooney was still something of an unknown quantity outside Britain, plying his trade with Everton and bearing only a fraction of the pressure he now endures from the English media, he has failed to perform.
Four goals in Portugal ten years ago introduced him to the world stage, but one goal and one red card in three major tournaments since is hardly something Rooney can be proud of. But, he is still on course to become England’s all-time leading scorer before he hangs up his boots.
At 28 years of age and with 38 goals to his name, he is well within reach of Bobby Charlton’s record of 49. Yet, it can be argued that none of these goals have come in competitive fixtures against any of the big powers of the game. Brazil 2014 is surely one of his final opportunities to change this.
Once again, despite all that has gone before, he is now carrying a nation’s World Cup hopes on his shoulders. Even those who agree with the assertion that his career has been a disappointment are hoping that this is Rooney’s time. If, somehow, he can inspire England to glory, then maybe, just maybe, he can make all the failures of the past disappear for good and the name Wayne Rooney can at least be pencilled in beside those of the greats of the game.
For a man of Rooney’s undisputed talent, it would be a crying shame if he is remembered as just another good player. The next month or so will tell a lot.
Brian Ryle, Pundit Arena.