I was at at Easter Road in 2002 to see 16-year-old Wayne Rooney’s debut for Everton, in a pre-season friendly against Hibernian.
When he ran out onto the hallowed turf my mate Scrap commented: “That cunt’s never 16, he looks like ma fuckin’ faither.”
(By debut, I mean ‘Scottish debut’, of course)
There might have been a resemblance of sorts. However, with his powerful build, acceleration, masterly touch and mature anticipation, Rooney wasted little time in displaying the goods that would make him soon come to be regarded as England’s finest natural footballer since Paul Gascoigne.
Since then he’s produced some of those moments which go beyond footballing skill into that realm of sporting autism, where you really have to wired in a different way to be that amazing. The most memorable one was perhaps that spectacular overhead kick in the Manchester derby.
What were you thinking Wayne? He wasn’t, or at least only tangentially: artists imagine and artists react.
Growing up in public is messy
Wayne Rooney had to grow up in public, always a messy process when you are feted so young and come from humble roots.
Footballers carry an added burden that pop stars or famous actors are immune from: they are landlocked close to the club they play for, and therefore its surrounding community. No wall-and-gated Cheshire mansion can completely isolate you from the ‘nipping-out-for-a-pint-of-milk-effect’, which proffers the sort of unsolicited attention that runs from ‘great goal on Saturday’ to ‘you fucking wanker’ and worse.
So it was that young Wayne left behind his beloved Everton and the Auld Slapper, marrying his childhood sweetheart and becoming a man who seems both centred in his personal life and dedicated to his trade.
Then, suddenly, that pointless and potentially bollock-removing lash out at Stewart Downing (below) in the home game against West Ham, and the sending off for violent conduct.
The question ‘what were you thinking Wayne?’ takes on a different meaning.
This strange incident has its clues in Manchester United’s changing fortunes, but perhaps also in Rooney’s performance immediately prior to it. He started the game like the Wayne Rooney of old, at his best, which he hasn’t consistently been since those devastating seasons alongside Ronaldo (below in 2007).
It seemed as if he was using his old skills, strength and burst of pace to leave West Ham’s defenders for dead. But the brutal truth is that they were standing off him in a manner that he has become very unaccustomed to in England’s domestic game. One thing that you can guarantee in the Premier League is that every year new defenders get stronger and faster.
Still only a game?
Of course new forwards are the same, but not the ones that are easing into veteran stage. They just get slower. At first it seemed like Rooney could hardly believe his luck, and was happy to punish Hammers defenders for their generosity. Then West Ham got organised, the defence showing some shape, focus, and nous, and Rooney started to look less effective.
Perhaps this reminded Wayne Rooney that he should be at his devastating peak, not looking like a player on the slide.
In his excellent footballer’s diary, Only A Game? Eamon Dunphy best expressed the despairing gut feeling of the professional who reaches that ‘awkward’ year of 28 (Rooney is 29 this month).
Show me the money
Players might be massively financially rewarded, but none is immune to the psychological pressure of knowing that you are basically past your best in your late 20s, and finished in your early 30s, when you are still young, strong and fit. It’s like telling a joiner that he’ll never be able to measure and cut a piece of wood, to a satisfactory standard, by the time he hits 35.
In Rooney’s case the frustration has to be compounded by finding himself in the reduced circumstances of being in a transitional Manchester United team. The franchise-boosting declaration of playing mid-week friendlies overseas might make economic sense, by shoring up a soft global support.
Ultimately though, by reconstructing Manchester United as football’s Harlem Globetrotters, hawking their wares around Europe, while others compete for the prizes, is both degrading to the stature of the club, and an embarrassment to its genuine fans.
Spend, spend, spend
With the passing of time Rooney might, in the back of his artist’s mind, feel his big match days are now finite, that his canvasses will be smaller ones from here on in.
Walking out to the adulation of 75,000 people will never be anything less than the almighty buzz the rest of us can only dream of, but its becoming increasingly tough imagining him in, say, another Champions League final, or even a semi.
Manchester City and Chelsea will always outspend the Glazers, so two of the four Champions League places are spoken for already. Wenger’s Arsenal look as if they’ve almost paid off the Emirates albatross, and will now be freer in the market.
Liverpool, under Brendan Rodgers, appear to be a genuine force again. And this is the opposition for the big prize in England alone, before we even start to consider the continental giants. United, under Louis van Gaal, have spent, but might need to spend a lot more.
Supporters of the club will never think of Rooney as replica shirt salesman, and they must hope the Glazers don’t either.
My mate was exaggerating when he said the 16-year-old Rooney looked like his dad. Before he does, however, it would be nice to see the current model again competing with the best. If not, we could be privy to some more unsightly manifestations of his frustration.
Irvine Welsh is the best-selling author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Filth and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. He contributes to the Paddy Power Blog each month. Follow Irvine, if you wish, on Twitter here.
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