Jim White

Celebrating 10 years of the Wayne Rooney enigma

Jim White

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Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring the winning goal for Everton against Arsenal in October 2002

"Remember the name: Wayne Rooney, a new star is born on Merseyside."

It is not often in his career that Clive Tyldesley can boast such prescience. But 10 years ago this week, during his commentary on Everton's game with Arsenal, he got it spot on.

From the very moment a short, bullet-headed 16-year-old powered towards the Arsenal goal and heaved a howitzer shot past a floundering David Seaman into the top corner of the net, that name has been inscribed on the national consciousness. A decade later the entire nation knows the name.

It has become shorthand for those who don't understand to mock modern football and its excesses. It has become the peg on which to hang blame for international and club failure. And every so often it is the name that makes us realise what exactly it is that makes us love the game.

This week, Rooney scored for England, his 32nd goal in 78 international appearances. Not that reading about the match against Poland you would have heard much about a very handy hit rate of one goal every 2.4 internationals. Rather the reports dwelt on his sluggishness, his poor positioning, his sloppy control, his inaccurate passes. It was not one of his best afternoons and boy were we made aware of his shortcomings.

This is the position in which Rooney finds himself a decade on from that explosive debut: he is the bellwether of every team in which he plays. So central has he become, if he plays well, the team is deemed to have performed well. And if the team does poorly, then it is all his fault.

In a sense, this is the burden of excellence. We recall that goal against Arsenal, or the overhead kick against Manchester City, the one voted the best in the 20-year history of the Premier League, and we not only expect him to reproduce it every week, we accuse him of all sorts of personal inadequacies when he fails to do so.

It is the same for his club as for his country. He scored 34 goals for Manchester United last season. But such recent history is forgotten when in this season he has yet to score in the Premier League. This season he is accused variously of being past it, of losing his passion, of no longer being hungry enough to make the effort.

Which, as anyone who watched United's win at Newcastle the other week, in which Rooney flung himself into the fray, spraying perfect pass after perfect pass, will tell you is a ridiculous assertion. Yet with Rooney, reality and received opinion rarely intersect.

The truth is, Manchester's favourite Scouser is not at the very top of the game. He is not in the class of Ronaldo, Messi, Xavi or Iniesta. But he is as good as England has. And with that comes a reputational burden.

Remember Roberto Baggio and Raul when they were the best Italy and Spain had, figures standing head and shoulders above the rest in mediocre times? Or Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden now? They rarely seemed to play to the level of expectation larded on them when they pulled on an international jersey (though Ibrahimovic played up to reputation against Germany in the week).

And, when they failed, they seemed to be judged by harsher standards. Dismissed as arrogant, uncaring, uninterested. Seen somehow as the problem. Instead of merely having an off day, or being out of form or out of shape, Rooney is accused of representing all that is wrong with the English game.

But what would help Rooney most is a bit of competition, someone to lift the burden, someone to give an alternative focus. If he were not alone at the summit, but were first among equals, the full-beam concentration on him would be toned down. For a start it would mean if he were off form he wouldn't be automatically picked as he was at both the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros.

He now has it at Manchester United, where the purchase of Robin van Persie has provided someone else to do the heavy lifting in the penalty area. It may well allow him to drift back into the front of midfield, the position he surely was made to fill, the proper number 10 role.

Sadly for England there appears to be no such hope on the horizon. All we have is St George's Park and the promise that maybe in 10 years we'll have forwards who can control a though ball. Until then it is Rooney or no-one.

Remember the name? As this week gave stark demonstration, it would be nice if we had opportunity to remember anything else.

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