Thursday 14 December 2017

James Lawton: Rooney has betrayed his divine talent

James Lawton

James Lawton

You never know, one day Wayne Rooney might just wake up and wonder if he has anything or anybody left to betray. But who would bet on it?

The increasingly uncomfortable truth, if there could be any bleaker speculation on the future of a sumptuously gifted 26-year-old footballer, is that if it was ever going to happen it would probably have done so by now.

Rooney's latest failure of will and discipline is still another invitation to review the huge gap between the promise of his talent -- and his own projections of it -- and the reality of his current record.

When Alex Ferguson left him out of the game with Blackburn Rovers, then watched the chance to regain a grip on the Premier League race disintegrate so shockingly, we could only speculate on the degree of his anger.

Indeed, there was just one certainty. It was the manager's fresh dismay when he discovered that not only was Rooney less than contrite about appearing for training with the appearance and demeanour of a rumpled hangover victim rather than a £200,000-a-week professional sportsman, he was also bemused and indignant, even angry.

Such a level of denial -- which included his tweet that his resolution was to finish the new year as he started it, a champion -- would be stunning if it had not been preceded by so much evidence of a fault-line in his competitive character.

His latest situation cried out for a fresh appraisal of his inability to be as remotely as good as his word.

Even if we have assigned to ancient history the miseries he inflicted upon himself and all those around him with his derelict performance in the South African World Cup, his off-field behaviour, his cynical contract ambush of United and the risible camouflage of his accusation that the club lacked ambition, the indictment is still heavy against a man who appears congenitally disposed towards saying one thing and doing another.

Remember his declaration after last spring's Champions League final defeat by Barcelona at Wembley, in which, to be fair, he looked head and shoulders above any of his team-mates? It was quite bracing in both its ambition and its humility.

He said that every player in the world had an obligation to follow the example of his recent conqueror Lionel Messi. He pointed to one of the great virtues of the little maestro, his implacable pursuit of perfection.

It was no easy task he was setting himself, but, yes, he was now dedicated to walking in the footsteps of the world's best player. Except, that is, when the temptations of a holiday breakout were just too compelling; except when a piece of high-flying self-promotion could be conveniently side-footed into touch.

How many times must Rooney betray himself and others before someone like Ferguson or England manager Fabio Capello decides that every promise, every surge of brilliance, is destined to end in the most crushing anti-climax?

Rooney, who should be England's most reliable asset heading to this summer's European finals, goes into the tournament a lame duck who misses the first two games for a piece of red-mist ill-discipline which would have shamed anyone's international record even had it not come five years after his disgraceful exit from the World Cup of 2006.

The latest episode is so dismaying because it comes so late in the Rooney story. At 26, he should now be professionally formed. It is the age when his brilliant predecessor George Best was firmly into the tragic decline that took him, day by day, further away from a breathtaking level of consistency.

Rooney's career profile is more staccato. Exceptional performance is mixed in with periods of unaccountable mediocrity. One day he is a god, the next he is hapless and apparently indifferent to what is happening around him.

With each new example of failed commitment, or dysfunctional professional character, there is inevitably the haunting memory of quite what he promised. If you happened to be at Goodison Park the day he, while not yet 17, destroyed Arsene Wenger's great Arsenal team, you could be excused for believing that you had seen the future of English football -- and that it worked.

Wenger had never been so enthusiastic about English-grown talent. "He is the best young English player I have ever seen," the Arsenal manager declared.

There was the same degree of certainty after he had inspired England to a European qualifying victory over World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in Sunderland. Playing in his first competitive international, Rooney ignited England. He made the 'golden generation' look like a collection of bit players. He had authority, a touch that was nothing less than imperious.


In his absence last weekend, you were also bound to remember the day he scored two stupendous goals against Middlesbrough and the way a posse of kids chased his sports car as he gunned it out of the Old Trafford car park and into a night that promised only more idolatry.

The kids, like the rest of us, had reason to believe that they were chasing something more than a shooting star. Perhaps he was a footballer of the ages, some miraculous throwback to those days when great players were born in the streets and for whom playing the game would always be at the centre of their lives.

A lot of us have reason to suspect something rather different now, and there is a good chance this number includes those kids who risked their lives running behind his shiny new car. They may have to take their place in a lengthening queue, but they too may be inclined to believe they are among the betrayed.

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