Comment: Wayne Rooney may rue passing up a dignified decline for a fast buck
Jimmy Hill and his son Duncan moved the North American Soccer League franchise the Detroit Express to Washington in 1980, one of the few times that a man as prescient in the great developments of the game as Hill snr called it badly wrong.
The city had already seen a soccer club fail once, and the second iteration of the Washington Diplomats lasted only one more season, even with Johan Cruyff in the side. If George Best’s contribution to the nascent American game of that era was that great European players would often drink in vast quantities, Cruyff’s was that they could also smoke with similar dedication.
In Cruyff’s footsteps comes Wayne Rooney, and what a low-key exit for the giant of his generation of English football. Under the cover of the World Cup finals, he arrived quietly in Washington DC on Friday to sign for DC United, currently the worst side in Major League Soccer, without so much as a crowd to juggle a football for or say a few words to.
Eighteen months ago, he was still captain of Manchester United, last July, he was presented as part of Everton’s future, and the following month, Gareth Southgate asked him to return for England. It was November when he clipped his hat-trick goal over Joe Hart’s head from his own half. He was not the Rooney of old but still a good Rooney, and now he is at a club with two wins from 12 who would be glad of a win over Vancouver Whitecaps.
At 32, it all seems a bit early in the story. Frank Lampard was almost 36 when he departed for New York, Steven Gerrard was 35 when he alighted in Los Angeles. Of course, Rooney’s career did start early, a 16-year-old man-child knocking Premier League defenders over with mesmerising impertinence.
He could have been a bit more abstemious along the way, although you cannot argue with his record. There were many more rungs of the ladder between Goodison Park and last place in the Eastern Conference.
David Beckham also left for MLS at 32, a calamitous decision for his playing career taken when he was dumped by England and one he seemed to spend the next few years trying to undo. Loans proved he was still capable of playing in the European game, and for England, to whom he returned and would have represented at the 2010 World Cup finals, three years after being canned by Steve McClaren, were it not for injury.
For Rooney, the England years are over, given that it was his own decision to retire. One misfortune was to be the only big name of his cohort of mid-1980s-born English players, something he often pointed out when asked about the pressure heaped on his teenage shoulders. He was too late for the best of the golden generation and too old for the best of the Gareth Southgate generation.
He will always have the trophies, 11 major European and domestic and those two monumental all-time goalscoring records for Manchester United and England that he has seized from Bobby Charlton.
Given what he has done and how stupendously famous he has been, some might find it hard to envisage him coming off the bench for Brighton or chivvying along a spirited Bristol City team into a late push for the play-offs, but one cannot help think he might have enjoyed it.
There is something noble about playing your way down the leagues or, as John Terry did, discovering late in one’s career the intensity of the 46-game Championship season where the matches come thick and fast and losing the occasional one is only to be expected.
No doubt the money will be good in MLS, but it will be good whenever he chooses to go there. He has done all the big stuff in the English game, what price a bit of fun outside the elite?
A Washington Post profile of Rooney this week – “his past 16 years have roiled the tabloid pages” – made a polite observation about his career thus far. That being his life has been played out in a relatively small area of north-west England, in north Liverpool where he grew up and played for Everton and then Old Trafford 34 miles away.
It did not need Woodward and Bernstein to make the point that Washington DC is a lot further than Rooney has ever strayed from Merseyside. There is no reason he cannot make a new life for him and his family somewhere else. But there is a problem when a part of the exported English football star thinks he is in the wrong place. Whatever LA Galaxy paid Beckham, it was never enough to stop him wondering whether he had gone too early and embarking on those loans to AC Milan which his MLS club grudgingly approved.
Why has Rooney gone so early? LeBron James is 11 months older and will be one of the NBA’s most sought-after free agents this year. Cristiano Ronaldo is 10 months older. James Milner – just 72 days younger and a teetotaller – has played only 19 career club games fewer than Rooney’s 676 and most recently started a Champions League final.
Milner has as much chance of conquering America as county cricket, but one suspects he will ease back down the leagues when his time is up at Liverpool. He has suggested there is a game outside the Premier League that he would like to revisit, one his prodigy status made him leave early, including Leeds United. He will have the time and the wealth to do that. So, too, Rooney but he has leapt out of English football at a very young age and may yet miss it more than he suspected.