SB Nation

Callum Hamilton | February 24, 2014

Wayne Rooney

The lost boy wonder

There's been a video doing the rounds of late that hints at the lost potential of Wayne Rooney, the player Manchester United had bought from Everton who appeared to disappear from the earth. It is England versus France, 2004, and all eyes on the pitch are on one of the most astonishing and idiosyncratic talents to come out of England for decades.

It pretty much perfectly sums up the unique talent that provoked Werner Herzog, of all people, to declare Rooney his favourite player - one who seemed "half viper, half bison." That description summed up the kind of magic the young Scouser had about him. Aggression and flair are perhaps the two traits, when successfully channeled, that make fans fall in love with players the most. But they are uneasy bedfellows, rarely cohabiting in the same mind. Manchester United might have been the logical team for Rooney, because of all clubs, they have the longest and most stories history of such players. Mark Hughes was as capable of scoring great goals as he was of booting someone in the genitals, and the same could be said of Bryan Robson. The archetype was probably the greatest of all, Eric Cantona.

Rooney, however, was different. His aggression didn't manifest itself in the retaliatory brutality of Hughes, nor in the one-off theatre of ultraviolence that Cantona would bring, glorious and historic as it sometimes was. Instead, it was billed as "the sort of aggression that wins you games", Battle Fever made flesh, Roy Keane minus the sadism, driving him on to psychopathic levels of competition. Try to imagine Rooney looking half as exciting in that video without his violent determination. It's impossible.

Of course, his touch left something to be desired, but he was young - that would be solved in time. In hindsight, even knowing the player Rooney has become, it's an exciting talent to witness - the errors are all recognisable as the foibles of youth, just like Cristiano Ronaldo's showboating of a similar era. Here was a player who could not only be among the greats, but possessed a type of talent that comes along not even once in a generation. The last comparable player could've been another United hero, but turned out to be one of English football's great what-ifs, when Alex Ferguson missed out on his signature - Paul Gascoigne.

The start to Rooney's career at Manchester United couldn't have been too much more astonishing. The tidal wave of thinkpieces and hand-wringing over paying such a fee for a teenager ended up completely dissipated by the time of his debut, where he thwacked a quite magnificent trio of goals past Fenerbahce. Already, nothing seemed beyond him and United's investment looked a bargain. "The hairs on the back of my neck are going ballistic... we all knew he was good, but that was frightening", cooed The Guardian's Rob Smyth, a United fan, reporting on the game.

More were to come that opening season. Rooney was not prolific, but his goals were good and important. There was little coming off the bench to put away the fourth of a 4-0 home win against relegation strugglers, but instead key goals against good teams in difficult circumstances. Despite his age, he was already a key player and potential matchwinner. He humiliated Jerzy Dudek to gain United a rare win at Anfield, scored a pair of belters against Middlesbrough, got a brace including a fine late winner against Portsmouth, and battered in a fabulous volley against Newcastle. Such volleys were becoming his signature move, the technique and trajectory seemingly a natural occurrence with Rooney merely applying his bloody minded take-that-you-bastard application. The perfect example of a great player as loose balls fell to him, a man to whom great things happen simply because he is who he is, in the right place at the right time.

"Half viper, half bison." Not just the flair and aggression, but capable of imposing himself with an indomitable mental strength and physicality, while also possessing a lethal instinct to create or score from virtually any position. After the dull rigour of United post-2001, it was the start of something new - something very different to what had gone before. There would be obstacles in the way of his rise at United - his own demonds, injuries, and the national team among them. But the biggest of all would prove to be a psychopath of a very different colour.

Cristiano Ronaldo had none of Rooney's aggression on the pitch, and his showboating and selfishness were mistaken as merely a hot-headed, overexcited manifestation of his arrogance and youth. They weren't. Instead, they were the early symptoms of the affliction that would drive Ronaldo on to become the greatest player in history, bringing United a Champions League trophy and several titles - a fanatical pursuit of personal glory at all costs.

Ronaldo would be the figure to emerge as United's key player and talisman at Rooney's expense, the individual who would dominate the pre-match thoughts of all opposition. He was taller, faster, stronger, more gifted and more handsome. Rooney, meanwhile, was suffering some rather premature baldness as well as being shunted out on the left-wing, his competitiveness and determination shaped into work-rate and defensive covering.

With any troublesome incident on or off the pitch, commentators and pundits would repeat an increasingly hackneyed line: you can't tame Rooney, because his aggression is what makes him the player he is. That line would get trotted out as that player no longer was what he was, and the mentality changed with him. It moved from ferocious determination to simple tactical work-rate, eventually morphing into the latter-day frustrated acts of futile destruction, eerily prophesied by that kick-out on the man who was, literally and metaphorically, forcing him out onto the wings at Old Trafford. Even away from United, Rooney could not escape the shadow of his superior.

United, though, could not contain Ronaldo. His lust for glory would take him out of Manchester to seek out and collect the heads of more exotic and powerful enemies in Barcelona and Lionel Messi. That was the chance Rooney had been waiting for, and when the best player in the world was replaced with the best player at Wigan, Rooney finally had the opportunity he'd been waiting for. And he took it, with the best season in his career so far.

Playing as a lone centre-forward, Rooney was unstoppable. A remarkable aerial prowess was discovered out of nowhere, as United seemed to score half their goals that season with Antonio Valencia sending in a ball directly for Rooney to guide into the net with an expert looping header. As United hurtled towards the finish line, he was not only the best player on the team but also in the league, scoring a goal a game, and looking for the first time the force of nature he had always threatened to be.

Yet for all that, he was still in a restricted role, and still ultimately forced into a position out of the necessity of Ferguson and his acquiescence to Glazer austerity. A team that had possessed a phenomenal interchanging attacking quartet, collectively possessing every quality that could be wished for in a frontline were, in the blink of an eye, transformed into a team that would get it out wide quickly and get crosses into the box for their star forward. No license to roam or create - just wait in the box and finish. Rooney had done that job brilliantly, and United were looking good for the Champions League final for the third consecutive time, until Mario Gomez trod on his foot.

That seemingly innocent incident would set off a chain reaction of events that led to chaos, stagnation, and the seemingly final loss of Rooney's chance to become United's key figure. An unfit Rooney returned for the second leg, eventually replaced by John O'Shea after United had come flying out of the blocks, going two up after seven minutes before adding another just before Rooney's withdrawal. But Bayern mounted a remarkable comeback, and United were out - left to focus on the league title.

After being rushed back from injury, however, Rooney could not regain his form, and neither could Dimitar Berbatov, whose performances had also suffered from being kept out by their star striker. United capitulated in the title race, and were forced to settle for a mere League Cup for their pains. Whatever happened to Rooney afterwards, he was looking frustrated. There would be no time to recuperate as he headed off to the World Cup, where his most notable contribution was to lambast the England fans on camera.

The next season would be his worst, and the first glimpse of the new Rooney, the current incarnation. The season opened with the famous transfer request, as Rooney took the remarkable step of publicly taking on Ferguson, who retaliated in an unpredictable manner, turning on the charm to woo Rooney into signing a new deal at the club which raised his wages to eye-watering levels. It was a risk, given his state at the time - and immediately at least, it backfired.

Rooney was dreadful that season - he scored the greatest goal of his career, which spoke to many years past and still to come of lost potential, but his touch completely deserted him and his new wage, combined with his tantrums if rested for any minute of football, made him undroppable regardless of how poorly he was playing. He controlled incoming balls only marginally better than another ball would, his mentality and work-rate were writing cheques his lungs couldn't cash, and he looked increasingly unfit but remained unrestable. Despite that, a lack of effective competition allowed United to finish comfortably clear and win back the title.

Picking a fight with Ferguson is not something that is done lightly. Few people, and no United players, had lived to tell the tale. Rooney did it, and he gained a minor victory in receiving a new contract and exploiting the economic situation at United (at the time, United had not yet managed to restructure their debt into something that did not threaten to bring the whole house down, rather than the mere albatross it is today.) But Ferguson does not forgive, and Ferguson does not forget. It was only a truce - a ceasefire to take time to move the corpses out of the way so the fighting could continue. Perhaps, and it would be forgivable, Rooney let it consume him. This was a long way beyond the age-old motivational technique of wanting to prove the manager wrong. It was personal.

One other great rebel against Ferguson, Roy Keane, also lost himself to the obsession. In a recent television show devoted to his battles with Patrick Vieira, Keane promptly hijacked the show to reroute it towards instead taking on the enemy he could never defeat. It culminated in him picking a rather preposterous 'Greatest United XI', in which Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville did not feature. Instead, Keane opted for an entire team of United players who rebelled against Ferguson. Rooney could have very easily slotted in alongside them.

Some theories among United supporters would view the list with interest. In one of the more conspiracy-tinged versions, Keane was the last straw for Ferguson, who would never again buy players who could take on the manager. Instead, yes-men were purchased to fill their place, nobody who could outgrow and threaten Ferguson's position, resulting in significantly meeker displays on the pitch. Ronaldo was an inevitable departure. but Rooney stuck around, despite publicly questioning his boss in handing in a transfer request in protest at a lack of top-class purchases.

After rewarding Ferguson's climbdown with an awful season in which United won the title, Rooney returned to goalscoring form the next as United meekly surrendered the title to Manchester City. The season after, Rooney would suffer another twist of fate as his demand for transfer activity backfired on him. It came in the form of Robin van Persie, one of the few men who could make Rooney expendable. Rooney reverted to looking lost and unfit, Ferguson used his new man to begin dropping him from the team, and United sauntered to another title during a poor season from their one-time Scouse hero. You may, at this point, see a pattern emerging.

Van Persie was the last of many nails in the coffin of the idea of Rooney making himself United's star player, the focal point around which the rest of the team would orbit. Ferguson tried to complete the job with a final stab in the back upon his departure from the club, but Rooney did not leave. Instead, he remained - he's been one of the few players to come out of the disastrous succession with any credit, and now he'll almost certainly become the club's record goalscorer. Men possessing twice the popular support, intelligence, importance and determination of Rooney have taken on Ferguson. All of them but Rooney have lost.

Rooney vs United since Ronaldo's departure

2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13
Games played 44 40 43 37
Goals scored 34 16 34 16
Goals per game 0.8 0.4 0.8 0.4
Premier League 2nd 1st 2nd 1st
Champions League Quarterfinal Final Group 1st Round
FA Cup 3rd Round 5th Round 4th Round 6th Round
League Cup Winners Semifinal 5th Round 4th Round

Now, the pattern is continuing - Rooney is having a very good season, and United are utterly lost, miles away from the title race and all but out of the running for the Champions League spots. The last time Rooney signed a new contract, we entered a new era, a new incarnation of a player who seems to become more of an enigma the more we see of him. The astonishing, spirited teenager became the good-but-not-great cog in a machine, became the star striker, became the strange player we've known for the past few years.

Nobody knows what Rooney will become now. But there is no Ferguson, and, temporarily at least, no Glazer-enforced spending restrictions that forced him to deploy his protege wherever there was a gap that needed filling. Moyes has used him as striker, number 10, and box-to-box midfielder already this season. For Rooney at least, the new era probably represents his last chance to be the player he always could have been - not in style or spirit, but perhaps in importance. It would surprise nobody back in 2005 to be told that Rooney had won the lot at club level and was looking to gain the United captaincy, and was also being tipped as a future leader for his country. They just probably wouldn't have expected it to go quite like this. Tangibly, Rooney has achieved all he wanted and still has the world at his feet, but he still has something lost, misplaced early in his career and never quite found again. But his story so far at United has been one of continual reinvention - it's now time for one last roll of the dice.

Author: Callum Hamilton | Designer: Graham MacAree

About the Author

Football writer covering the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A on SBN Soccer. Rap game Jock Wallace.