Dion Fanning: Wayne Rooney remains a source of fascination despite the diminishing of his talents
Published 25/10/2015 | 17:00
When Wayne Rooney was 18 he played football with an alert robustness that suggested he was gifted beyond his years. He was a teenager playing like a man who had reached his peak years. It was common to wonder what he would be like when he reached maturity.
Rooney turned 30 yesterday, as you will have noticed. It has been a year of celebration and eulogies. He broke Bobby Charlton's goalscoring record for England. Gary Lineker made a documentary which seemed to be aimed at those who believe footballers are feckless, as its central theme was that Rooney is, in fact, an ordinary guy leading an extraordinary life.
The programme succeeded in this aim: Rooney came across as likeable and thoughtful but this would have been known to a few already. Anybody who had read, say, David Winner's interview with Rooney a few years ago would have understood there was a more subtle human being than the celebrity pages suggest.
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Winner's interview told much about the football culture and the cynicism which pervades it as his starting point was Rooney's underappreciated mind.
Some warned him that the player would be unable to explain how he did what he did. Rooney's agent Paul Stretford suggested he was an "instinctive" player who might not be able to discuss things in conceptual terms.
Winner notes that people have often made a point of dismissing Rooney's intelligence. He is a much better player than David Beckham was but they share this public perception. Even today, as the global corporation that is David Beckham remains a powerful and potent worldwide entity, it is possible to hear people making jokes about how stupid he is, as if it was original or funny or anything but dumb.
Some of them have probably moved on to Rooney by now so they might have been startled by the documentary and if the idea was to win these people over, then it probably succeeded.
There was something of the campaign film about it which told another truth. If Rooney was the player he once was, there would be no need to tell us what he is really like. But he is not the player he was, nor is he a different but equally effective player. Rooney needs a PR campaign because he is no longer as eloquent in the arena where he would have traditionally mounted a campaign.
As we watched the heart-warming footage of this unassuming man, this mellowed, well-rounded individual, it was as if we were already witnessing the chapter entitled 'What Wayne Rooney Did Next.'
We glimpsed him in early middle age, a man at ease with his accomplishments but who now does his best work in the less demanding field that is international football.
He remains a source of fascination despite the diminishing of his talents. United might have Anthony Martial to offer the hope Rooney once provided, but in Louis van Gaal, they also have a manager who could be stifling whatever free expression remains in Rooney's game.
United remain unpredictable in the sense that nobody knows, for example, what will happen today in the Manchester derby. If they are top of the table this evening, Van Gaal's team will be said to be progressing, albeit as slowly as his side sometimes move forward, and if they fail, the same voices which criticised their performance in Moscow will be heard, offering a reminder that this is not the United way while also reminding people that United now have powerful alumni who aren't afraid to say what they think.
Rooney is unlikely to belong to them despite his achievements. He has been disgruntled too often and too publicly for that, even if it is a shame he couldn't have signed for Chelsea in 2013 when it would have been fascinating to see what Mourinho had planned for him.
Instead he stayed as a symbol of United's ambition but he also exists as a marker for their post-Ferguson uncertainty. In the TV studios, the Class of '92 serve as a government-in-exile, an alternative to the cultural imperialism Van Gaal has attempted to force on Manchester United.
They offer a vision of the true Manchester United, the United Rooney will never be accepted into despite his goals and his achievements.
He is an Everton supporter, he is England's captain and record goalscorer but for United he has an uncertain position in the affection of supporters.
Perhaps he doesn't care, perhaps he sees affection as part of the problem, a companion to the celebrity he is so uncomfortable with.
Like many football men, it is fame that Rooney can't stand. "Fame is a pain in the arse," John Giles has said and Rooney's tangle with celebrity has demonstrated that this is an eternal truth. People will say that Rooney is compensated for this irritation by his great wealth but it's not unearned wealth. There will be some as talented as Rooney who do not have his riches but equally there are those less talented who have his wealth.
And he can curse his fame but nobody cares because he has been well rewarded for it. Yet it is a curse, perhaps an even greater one because there is so little sympathy, even as fame drains life from those who wanted it and those, like Rooney, who wanted something else.
He had what he wanted once, that is some consolation at 30.
When we looked at Rooney in 2002 or at the European Championships in 2004 when he was 18, we knew we were glimpsing a man not a boy but it turned out there was a downside to this. He wasn't 18 at all, he was 28 and at the peak of his powers.
Perhaps there is something profound in all this, a sense that, contrary to the views often expressed by X-Factor contestants and wellness experts on Instagram, there is no journey in life, there is just life.
Rooney once represented the future when in fact he was living the future when he was 18 years old.
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