Wayne Rooney – A genius shackled by time

After more than 850 games, 350 goals, 16 trophies and a list of individual honours that stretches as far as the eye can see – Wayne Rooney has called time on his professional career.

But he didn’t do it in front of the glaring lights of Old Trafford, or at his beloved Goodison Park. He did it on a cold, mid-January day, with nobody there to see it happen.

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After everything he’s done, all that he achieved, he’s retired as a player by staggering through the exit door into the unforgiving arms of management.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but in the harsh light of his final years of playing, it was probably the most inevitable ending. To understand why that’s the case, however, we have to go right back to the very beginning.

Rooney was a street footballer, driven by a burning passion and love for a game which propelled him from the backstreets of Croxteth to national stardom – all through one goal against Arsenal.

By now, you probably don’t need someone to break it down for you, but it showed so much of what a young Rooney was great at. 

The then-16-year-old controlled a falling ball as if his Umbro Zyphro II’s were laced with glue, before heading his sights on goal and unleashing an unstoppable shot which crashed in off the underside of the bar.

It was fearless, nonchalant, bold, and so, so easy – because he’d done it a million times before.

Most lads would celebrate a goal and a day like that, but Rooney’s age meant he couldn’t join in with his teammates. So instead, he went back home, and played another game of football in the streets against the garages – as if nothing had happened. 

Wayne Rooney was like a gift from the footballing Gods.

– Gary Lineker

After over a year-and-a-half of terrorising defenders for Everton, it was Europe’s turn to face the teen with the world at his feet, as he travelled to Euro 2004.

In the opening match against Switzerland, Rooney nodded home a close-range header to open the scoring, becoming the youngest player to ever score at a European Championships in the process. 

Then, with 15 minutes to go, he helped to make the game safe with a rasping drive from the edge of the area that struck the post, before flying in off the head of Swiss ‘keeper Jörg Stiel. 

Even to this day, almost every report on that game says Rooney scored twice despite the second clearly being an own goal. But such was the Euphoria around the boy, it seems they had to give it to him!

Next, he tore Croatia to shreds, fizzing home a shot from distance in the first-half before ploughing forward to slot home a delicious Michael Owen through ball and send England to the quarter-finals. But then disaster struck.

In the 27th minute, he limped off after cracking the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot. Despite the quality of that England team, they wilted without their teenage sensation, and eventually lost on penalties as Portugal progressed. 

This tournament should have been the beginning for Rooney on the international stage. But instead, it ended up being his pinnacle. 

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He carried another injury into the 2006 World Cup – resigning him to the bench for the opening two games – before he was infamously sent off in another fateful quarter-final against Portugal, with England once again losing on penalties.

England didn’t make it to Euro 2008, he carried a groin injury into the 2010 World Cup, and due to some ill-discipline in a qualifier against Montenegro, Rooney was suspended for the opening two games of the 2012 European Championships.

It wasn’t until 2014 that he was fit and ready to go, but ten years on from the insouciant brilliance of that Croatia game, Rooney was a spent force – a shadow of the player he once was.

This was due to a few reasons. Rooney was always selfless, often finding himself playing as a pawn to a more valuable piece by the time he moved to Manchester United after the competition. When he first arrived, that piece was Ruud van Nistelrooy. A predatory, instinctive striker who fed off of the excellent service from those around him.

Once the Dutchman left, Sir Alex Ferguson set about building a new, more fluid attack – one of the abilities which enabled him to manage at the top level for over three decades.

But still, Rooney wasn’t the star. Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo was United’s main man, outscoring Rooney in each of the three seasons in between Van Nistelrooy’s departure and his own.

The most successful of those seasons was 2007/08 – one in which Rooney was also outscored by Carlo Tevez –  as Ferguson often entrusted him with a role on the left-hand side of midfield with Ronaldo up front. Sir Alex could trust Rooney, he was dependable, and a real team player – even to his own detriment. 

Whatever job you give him, he’s really going to try and do that job as you and the team want it to be done. Not all star players give you that.

– Roy Hodgson, England Manager 2012-2016

United went on to win the Champions League and the Premier League title that year, but Rooney would have to wait another season until he was finally the man on the main stage.

Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid in a world record move in 2009, leaving a gaping void in the forward line of Manchester United – but Ferguson had just the man for the job.

Rooney evolved from a team player to a potent goal scorer, like Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy before him. All of his open play goals that year came from inside the box, with just under a quarter of them being with his head (compared to a combined 15% over the five seasons previous.) Like Ronaldo, his game evolved.

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He was improving in every area to be what United needed at that time. His total of 26 league goals was only bettered by Didier Drogba’s 29, and signalled his most prolific season yet, but more change was afoot. 

During the 2010 World Cup, he was deployed as a number 10 and, despite struggling to impact games in South Africa, he enjoyed his time in the role. Ferguson subsequently changed system again, playing Rooney in behind that season’s Golden Boot winner in Dimitar Berbatov, or nippy frontman Javier Hernández.

He scored and assisted eleven goals from deep in 10/11, as United reclaimed the Premier League title and reached a third Champions League Final in four seasons. His positional change led to less goals, of course, but it still brought us vintage moments.

You knew that he would run through a brick wall for you, for himself, for the team and for the fans.

David Beckham, Rooney’s teammate 2003-2009

In a game away to West Bromwich Albion, with United clinging on to 2-1 lead, Rooney was injured by a late Chris Brunt challenge. Any normal player would have left the field that day, but with no substitutes left and five minutes of added time to endure, Rooney hobbled back on to play his part in securing the three points.

The gesture paid homage to his leadership and team player status, and isn’t something you see very often in the Premier League. But Rooney never has, and never will, deal with the expected.

A month later, Manchester City travelled to Old Trafford as genuine title contenders for the first time in over 30 years, but in need of a win against United to stay in the race. With the score deadlocked at 1-1, and with Rooney’s Reds rocking, he stepped up again. 

United were building up patiently, before Paul Scholes took control and sprayed a textbook ball over to Nani. The winger squared up his man before knocking a cross into the area, but it took a slight deflection off Pablo Zabaleta, sending it away from the forward.

But Rooney did what he always had done – adapted.

He rotated his body before launching his right foot at the ball, sending it crashing into the top corner, winning the derby – and maybe the title – for Manchester United. It made Ferguson, a man who watched his United sides score over 2,700 goals, say he had never seen a goal like it. 

Audacity, belligerence, passion. It was the hallmark of Rooney.

The football he absolutely loves – he’d do it until the day he dies.

– Coleen Rooney, Wayne’s wife

Whilst success continued to come in the way of trophies and goals, the move to number 10 signalled the beginning of the end for him at the highest level, albeit after one more goal-laden season in 2011/12.

He hit 27 goals in the Premier League, but once again trailed in the Golden Boot stakes as Robin van Persie – a future teammate – took home the accolade after notching 30 for Arsenal. He joined Rooney that next year, as Sir Alex departed on a high with a 13th Premier League title.

But his physical ability was beginning to decline, with Ferguson later stating that Rooney had fitness issues, and that it would typically take him weeks to get back up to speed after injury due to his strange body type.

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Perhaps it was because he played so many games from such a young age, but Rooney had lost that edge, and a move deeper into midfield was born out of necessity rather than demand.

He still scored 17 league goals during the ill-fated David Moyes era, but this would be his final 15+ goal season at any club, as Rooney’s decline was felt most during Louis van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford.

Games in attacking or central midfield were becoming more common for the then-30-year-old, and getting about the pitch was starting to become an issue. During his latter years at both United and with England, many felt Rooney was shoehorned into sides that didn’t really need him, and were not benefited by his involvement. 

That isn’t to say that was right, or that Rooney didn’t still contribute. In 2016, he became the Premier League’s second-highest scoring player – trailing only Alan Shearer – before becoming Manchester United’s leading goalscorer in 2017, with a last-minute free-kick against Stoke.

On the international stage, a penalty against Switzerland confirmed Rooney as the highest scorer in England’s history, before he went on to become the nation’s most capped outfield player of all-time in 2017.

Perhaps if Rooney had stayed fit in 2004 and 2006, or if England hadn’t appointed Steve McClaren to reach Euro 2008, they may well have won something. But unfortunately, when fit, Rooney was past his best and playing in some of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing England sides ever seen. 

He may not have been needed come his eventual retirement from the national side in 2017, but his commitment to international football could never be questioned.

He was an absolute live wire, street fighter, tough, score goals, assist goals, best defender, never give in. Everything you would want in a football player, he was there. To me, the best striker I played with.

– Gary Neville, teammate of Rooney’s 2003-2011

As well as retiring internationally, he also called time on his Manchester United career that same year, leaving with a hatful of  goals, trophies and moments, before re-joining Everton.

By then, though, it was clear Rooney was a very different entity to the one who left Goodison all those years ago. With a game less based on beating players and getting fans off their seats, but one more involved in technical ability and linking play. 

But still, at times, Rooney was a shining light in a dark season for the Toffees. He scored in both his opening games, earning Everton a 1-0 victory over Stoke with a terrific header, and a 1-1 draw away to Manchester City. His strike at the Etihad was his 200th Premier League goal, too – only the second man to ever reach that number.

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He rolled back the years with a corker against Arsenal and a hat-trick against West Ham, completed with a thunderous, first-time effort from inside his own half. Late penalties against Liverpool and Brighton rescued points, whilst another textbook header won all three against Newcastle.

Sadly though, by the end, Rooney seemed like more of a problem than a benefit, and he was guzzling up huge wages. That wasn’t all his fault by any means, however. Rooney was, like all Everton fans, a victim of bad recruitment, as his place in the side came at the hindrance of club record arrival Gyfli Sigurðsson.

I just feel like I should have been more selfish, almost refuse to go and play in midfield and say I wanted to carry on in a more advanced role. It hindered my chances of doing even better there (Everton).

Said Rooney after his departure – and it’s hard to disagree. A raw, limbsy Dominic Calvert-Lewin led the line for most of the season, before Cenk Tosun arrived to decent effect in the closing months of the campaign. 

But Rooney still finished as the club’s top scorer, and I can’t help but feel if he had returned to Everton earlier, there could have been more for him back at Goodison. 

He left English football all together that summer, joining DC United in the MLS where he helped the black-and-red’s to the playoffs twice and top scored for the club in both his seasons there. It didn’t bring silverware, but his stay in the States gave us perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the Boy Wonder.

With DC drawing 2-2 against Orlando in a must win game, goalkeeper David Ousted joined the attack for a last-minute corner. Despite the ball being directed goalwards, it was cleared to the half-way line where Orlando’s Will Johnson had a clear run on an open goal – or so he thought.

Rooney sprinted after him, before making a crunching tackle just inside his own half to win the ball back and spring one final attack. He inched menacingly over the half-way line before spanking a 45-yard ball to the far post, where Luciano Acosta headed home, winning the game and completing his hat-trick.

It showed so much of what Rooney brought to football. Effort, tenacity, tackling, technical ability, and a capacity to play the supporting role. A final showing of that street footballer who sauntered onto the scene all those years ago, filled with enough scouse swagger and determination to fill the Mersey. Simply vintage.

The power of Wayne Rooney is in his mentality and his strength. He never stops, always running, helping the team. He’s a fantastic team player, but he scored goals – the most difficult part.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney’s teammate 2004-2009

After DC, he returned to English shores, seeing out his career at Championship side Derby in a player-coach (and captain) role; a clear step in the direction of management. His arrival sparked a huge upturn in form for the Rams, as they moved from 17th in the table to 7th by July 1st.

But in 2020/21, Derby have struggled. Their highlight of a difficult season so far predictably came from Rooney, as he curled home an 87th minute free-kick to give his side a 1-0 win at runaway leaders Norwich City.

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Since then, his dreams of becoming a manager have been realised. Firstly taking temporary charge of the midlands club in November before being appointed permanently in January of this year – winning and drawing nine of his opening 14 games, and lifting the Rams out of the relegation zone at the time of writing.

So, here we are. The end of a journey which has taken Rooney to the very highest highs of winning Champions League and Premier League titles, but to the lowest lows of international villainy, and the ignominy of becoming a bit part player for club and country.

Rooney has evolved and adapted throughout his career, becoming whatever was needed of him at any given moment to suit the players – and manager – around him. I would attempt to describe the man, but he did a pretty good job of that himself in a 2018 interview.

I’m a football player. I wouldn’t say I’m a goalscorer, I wouldn’t say I’m a wide-man or a number ten. I think I’m an overall footballer who loves playing the game and enjoys it.

Of course, he hasn’t been perfect – but no footballers are. Whether that’s because of the direct correlation to footballers also being human beings like the rest of us I’m not sure, but not having the cleanest copy book can’t be held against him. 

People will say that Rooney ‘never met his potential’, but I’m afraid that’s exceedingly harsh, if not downright false. Save that for the Michael Owen’s or Robbie Fowler’s of this world, or more extremely, Ravel Morrison and Billy Kenny.

If you retire as the top goalscorer in the history of arguably the biggest club in the world – and your country – as well as winning practically every single trophy available to you, I’d suggest you’ve done pretty well. Oh, and squeeze in four personally successful spells at three other clubs, too.

Wayne Rooney absolutely loved a game which, perhaps, didn’t always love him back. Had things fallen slightly differently, we would be talking about a man who’s on a podium with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But being in that conversation isn’t bad going for a lad from Croxteth.

The Author

James Pendleton

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