Wayne Rooney at 30: From supposed superstar to great survivor

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Wayne Rooney turns 30 today, the day before the Manchester derby. Richard Jolly looks back over his 14-year career in the top flight and finds a potential superstar turned great survivor.

It is almost half a lifetime ago. A shot of audacious brilliance, struck from 30 yards by a player who had never scored a league goal, against champions who were undefeated in 30 games. It was a last-minute winner, a first sign that greatness beckoned. “He is already a complete footballer,” said Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal were condemned to defeat at Everton at 2002. “He is supposed to be 16.”

He will be 30 on Saturday. Wayne Rooney has aged before our eyes. He has scored and slowed. He has achieved but, given those early predictions, perhaps underachieved. He has been the constant and the chameleon. There are three Rooneys: the player he is, the player he was and the player we thought he would become.

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No-one seems to call him “the White Pele” any more, and not just because nicknames referencing players’ skin colour have thankfully gone out of fashion. There was nothing controversial when, for the third successive season, he was omitted from the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or. When he last featured, in 2012, he polled 0.39 per cent of the vote.

Landmark birthdays offer a time for reflection. With the defiance of one whose decline has been widely described, Rooney declared this week that he has years of top-level football ahead of him. Indeed, he has the best part of four remaining on his lucrative Manchester United contract.

Yet it was salient that he declared the highlight of his club career – and, given England’s fortunes, by extension his career as a whole – was the 2008 Champions League final. That was the finest United team of his time, but Cristiano Ronaldo took top billing. Rooney’s personal peak came in 2009-10, when he had scored 34 goals by the time his ankle gave way in March. They seem distant days: he has only reached 20 once since. His greatest goal, the overhead kick against Manchester City came in 2011, but his thunderous volley against Newcastle was a decade ago. He was at his most eviscerating for England in Euro 2004. Like Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, other boyhood Evertonians, he was at his most dynamic and destructive before he turned 25.

Unlike them, he offers great longevity. This, increasingly, is where Rooney’s case for greatness lies. He is amassing formidable numbers. Consider the possible figures when he eventually vacates the stage: perhaps a record 65 goals in a record 150 games for England and a record 300 goals in 700 United appearances. Future generations may see the statistics and marvel at the wonder of the era of Rooney. Imagine the reception Harry Kane would be afforded if he were to achieve such eminence.

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But unlike Kane, Rooney was never underestimated to the extent that he was sent on loan to Leyton Orient. And it is his misfortune to ply his trade in an age when others are redefining what seems feasible. He scored his 300th goal for club and country in September. Ronaldo got his 500th.

It is also the case of when and where those goals came. Rooney has found the net in a Champions League final and is the record scorer in Manchester derbies but of his 50 international strikes, only two have come in major tournaments since Euro 2004. Thirty were in qualifying. He has preyed on England’s inferiors, but has delivered unspectacular efficiency when world-beating virtuosity was expected.

A supposed superstar has really proved a great survivor. Remember Sven-Goran Eriksson’s departing plea after the 2006 World Cup, when Rooney was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho? “He is the golden boy of English football, so don’t kill him.”

No-one did. Old Trafford’s most ruthless assassin, Ferguson, might have finished him off. Instead he retired in 2013 when, had he stayed, he would probably have sold Rooney. He outlasted a manager whose reign seemed never-ending. He captains United in a Manchester derby on Sunday. Joe Cole, the previous teenage wunderkind of English football, is set to play for Coventry at Swindon on Saturday. He is less than four years older than Rooney. Owen, another to light up the international stage before he turned 20, only scored 11 goals after his 30th birthday.

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Even Rooney’s biggest detractors would struggle to predict a similar slide from him, not least because of his improbably close relationship with Louis van Gaal. Rooney saw off the challenges of Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie last season. He has won an historic battle, too. Van Gaal recently elevated him above Danny Blind, the skipper of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League-winning side, by anointing him his finest ever captain.

His influence off the field is pronounced, even as many question what he offers on it. There are times when his touch is lacking, his pace seems gone and his goals have dried up when he seems in the team on the basis of status, rather than merit. Yet if Van Gaal grants Rooney preferential treatment, one of his generation’s most decorated managers is convinced he deserves it.

At 30, after 14 years in the spotlight, Rooney still confounds. He polarises opinion, between those who feel his time is up and those who refuse to recognise signs of deterioration in his game. He is ageing, but not old enough to receive acclaim. He is nowhere near reaching the stage Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes did where their every appearance prompted wonder that supposedly fossilised figures could still deliver for United.

The comparisons with past greats, whether Pele or Diego Maradona, or their current counterparts, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are rendered obsolete. There is no contest. Rooney does not belong in their bracket. The more pertinent evaluations concern rivals – City’s Sergio Aguero, when fit, brings a sharpness Rooney has mislaid – and colleagues. Anthony Martial is generating the sort of excitement Rooney once did. He is 19 and has scored 20 goals in his career. But he offers a sense of endless possibilities, of glorious potential, of better times to come. He is the future, and Rooney was the future once.

Author: EuroSports

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