Sunday 23 July 2017

James Lawton: Rooney's steep decline another reminder that he never had Ronaldo's dedication

Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have experienced contrasting fortunes since their days together at Manchester United. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have experienced contrasting fortunes since their days together at Manchester United. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

If the pictures of Wayne Rooney wasted and lost at the wedding party of strangers who welcomed him with one hand and flicked the camera buttons of their mobile phones with the other seemed for many like something close to the end of his story, he can hardly complain.

He has been this way before at critical points of a career which, for all the scoring records for England and the battle ribbons with Manchester United in better days, has for quite some time been brushing against failure.

No ordinary failure, of course. He could laugh at such a charge while sauntering over to the drinks cabinet in his mansion deep in the stockbrokers' belt. He could review his medals, his international caps, the riches he couldn't have imagined when he kicked a ball in the back streets of his native Liverpool and say that, if this is failure, let's open another bottle of the best bubbly and drink to it.

But, as it was easy to see in those tabloid pictures of glassy-eyed numbness, that would be to ignore the terrible sediment at the bottom of the bottle.

That would be to forget that it was never Rooney's destiny - any more than that of the most naturally gifted English player of his time before he emerged, Paul Gascoigne, to finish up a burned-out under-achiever at the age of 31.

Rooney was supposed to be not just a fine performer in English football but one of the great players of the world. Almost everybody said so - and often at first sight.

Wayne Rooney. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Wayne Rooney. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

They included such a stringent judge as Arsene Wenger, who after seeing the Everton teenager score against his Invincible champions, declared: "This is the most talented young English player I have ever seen - there shouldn't be anything he can't achieve."

SHORTFALL

And John Giles, who said: "He has extraordinary natural talent. He sees everything so quickly and has fantastic positional sense. If he works hard, if he looks after himself, I can see him being among the really great players."

There is one easy way now to measure the extent of Rooney's shortfall on such expectations. It is to compare him with Cristiano Ronaldo, the raw and nervy young Portuguese starlet he found in the Old Trafford dressing room when he joined United in 2004.

Then, Ronaldo was an item of Alex Ferguson speculation, skittish, self-absorbed and a manic dribbler. But also someone, Ferguson noted, with a desperate hunger to succeed, to put behind him the sadness of a youth spent under the influence of an alcoholic father. More than a decade on that hunger is still unsated.

Read more: Comment: Moral police have got it all wrong amid Wayne Rooney circus

Just six months older than Rooney, Ronaldo swears that he will play with Real Madrid until he is 40 - a claim taken seriously by the giant Nike company to award him a billion-pound contract and make him one of the richest sportsmen in history.

What drives Ronaldo on his epic hand-to-hand duel with Barcelona rival Lionel Messi, what cranks up still further his ambition after the Champions' League wins, the phenomenal scoring feats and, not least, the extraordinary personal crusade which was so influential in Portugal's European Championships win at the Stade de France last summer?

"I have been given one life, one talent," he says. "It is my duty to make the best of everything I have been given."

For so long Ronaldo was seen as the strutting narcissist whose favourite position was in front of his bathroom mirror. But as the years have passed, and the honours accumulated, there is another image. It is one of a fanatically committed professional sportsman, a hoarder of glory perhaps, but also one prepared to sweat blood in its pursuit.

Carlo Ancelotti is most insistent that Ronaldo's success, the arc of which now so profoundly dwarfs that of his former United team-mate, is built on a foundation of quite remarkable, maybe even unique ambition.

Says Ancelotti: "When I first arrived at Real Madrid, I learned that people had some wrong ideas about Cristiano Ronaldo. They saw someone obsessed with himself, his looks, his wealth. What I saw was an amazingly committed professional, someone who made it a pleasure to work with."

COMMITMENTS

Ancelotti warmed to that theme in the summer when the injured Ronaldo left the Euro final to act as part-coach, part-cheerleader in the upsetting of the host favourites France.

"Ronaldo cared about the team. The boy lived for the game, everything else was built to fit around it. This meant his recovery times, what he ate, when he ate, his commercial commitments, even his private life.

"All of it was organised so that when he stepped on the pitch he would be at the absolute peak of his performance. When things go wrong on the pitch he does not try to hide it. He also sees playing for Portugal fundamental to his career."

It is a picture of the kind of intensity which not many of Rooney's managers have been too eager to paint.

Ferguson knew the potential of the young player well enough, and was thrilled by some of his early success. But as the years progressed his satisfaction dwindled and in the few years before he retired it was a poorly-kept secret that he had at least given serious consideration to moving him on.

Wayne's world is clearly not for Ronaldo. This week's forlorn pictures were, if nothing else, a testament to that.

Irish Independent

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