There would have been a point in your life when it dawned on you that Wayne Rooney was actually no longer very good.
This realisation, like all realisations, would have emerged in one of two ways: the first being a gradual process whereby the pedestal you built for the Englishman broke down until there was nothing left; and the second being an instantaneous, bitter unravelling following an awful performance where you solemnly mutter under your breath: “he’s f***ing finished, him.” This last one is prone to false alarms. Knee jerk reactions are, after all, part of the fabric of being a football fan.
For me, the former was the case. When Sir Alex Ferguson started to push him to the periphery back in 2013, the initial reaction on my part was one of angered confusion: that he was indispensable was still a firm conviction I held in my head, along with most supporters. Manchester United without Rooney felt wrong – incomplete, even.
Then it started to make sense. Sir Alex, for the first time, had built a title winning side that no longer required the 31-year-old at its epicentre. He was slightly too slow, too immobile, and too ambiguous in what role he fulfilled. The Scot had found somebody else in the form of Robin van Persie to lead the line and utilised Michael Carrick as a balancing metronome around which the side could maintain a simultaneously steady and efficient tempo moving forward, and Rooney, week by week, appeared to stray further and further away from this winning mould.
The Englishman took notice of this and promptly asked to leave, only to be begged to stay by David Moyes, reassured that he would be restored to the nucleus of United’s first team. And for three years we had to sit and painfully watch as Rooney was ruthlessly and unsuccessfully wedged into a leading role. It was like watching somebody attempting to pick a lock with a marshmallow.
These three years resembled tragedy in its truest form: a Macbethean narrative in which the main character sets out with particular intentions and meets their downfall through the events that subsequently unfold. The tragic element, of course, is that the alienated protagonist – unlike the audience – doesn’t recognise their own demise as it happens.
But with the opening to this article in mind, there eventually came a point when it dawned on Wayne Rooney himself that Wayne Rooney was no longer very good.
The date was September 18th 2016, and nothing would be the same again for the 31-year-old. A feeble United, featuring an imbalanced and shaky midfield trio comprising of Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Rooney, slumped to a 3-1 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road.
This really was his nadir: never had the captain looked so incongruous in a Premier League fixture before. Every pass strayed wide, and anything that came towards him bounced somewhere else, that face growing even more red and aghast than normal, like a man entering his third hour of waiting in customs at a foreign airport without air conditioning.
Yes, performances like this had happened before, but this felt different. Even during bad displays in the past the captain always conveyed a sense of hunger, as if determined to put things right but only managing to become more puce and frustrated at digging himself in a deeper hole.
This time around, however, Rooney almost looked like he didn’t want the ball; he looked genuinely upset. No anger, no discernible semblance of appetite. And it was because the captain finally knew. His own description of that Sunday lunchtime is concise and matter of fact: “I had a bad game at Watford away and that was it.”
And Rooney wasn’t alone. In fact, that cloudy afternoon witnessed a dramatic and indeed widespread shift in perspective. Those labelling him as ‘finished’ beforehand were still, in the grand scheme of things, an extremist bunch, seen as the exception rather than the rule in the global footballing sphere. But that game tipped the balance. Compilations of the performance went viral, each of them crystallising a gloomy truth that many had either ignored or just not allowed themselves to see for some time.
The descent down the pecking order that followed was rapid: more ineptitude against Northampton Town four days later, dropped for Leicester City that weekend, and henceforth only used sporadically – just enough time on the pitch for him to claim the all time club goalscoring record but not quite enough for the captain to actually look like much more than a token guest to Jose Mourinho’s set-up.
How this episode, and indeed the years leading up to it, ends up being viewed by posterity is a mystery I want to probe further. When we see Rooney, twenty years from now, shifting awkwardly in his seat on Monday Night Football struggling to talk about United’s newest striker, how we remember him?
This is a question I ask with a tint of sadness. Because there was a time when, at any chance, I would put on my ‘Rooney 10’ shirt and pretend to be him. Every football fan has a childhood icon from their team and, like for many born in 1998, the Englishman was mine. But I fear that this demigod version of Rooney that dominated my early years will become secondary to the Rooney I have mercilessly bashed on this very website since 2014: the Rooney who endlessly struggled to act as a reliable axis of United’s attacking line-up – somebody who, in hindsight, has been more of a hindrance than a benefactor since about 2012.
You could apply the same query to Arsene Wenger: an undoubtedly great manager responsible for cultivating an entirely new identity at Arsenal and giving football the Invincibles, but a man whose legacy may end up being tainted by a sustained period of underachievement that has engendered an unbearable civil war within the club’s fanbase.
Both cases eerily resemble marriages that end up falling apart: initial excitement and utter infatuation followed by a lull and then, eventually, a bitter separation that probably should have happened a while ago.
But as football fans, and not emotional participants in a sacred bond between two people, we have a duty to be more objective than that. Most stories in sport, and indeed in all walks of life, are hallmarked by some kind of rise and fall. Just imagine if Macbeth hadn’t met a cruel death – the thing wouldn’t be worth watching. One side emboldens the other, in a way.
The videos of Rooney demolishing AC Milan, forming that unstoppable triumvirate with Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, scoring that overhead kick against Manchester City, and just generally being one of the most deadly strikers of our generation that followed his departure to Everton were indeed rendered more potent by the very fact that such brilliance couldn’t be prolonged – that, somewhere along the line, the bubble popped.
But those early years, around 2004, when Rooney brought to the table that idiosyncratically bullish style of ripping defences to shreds, followed by the collective brilliance of the aforementioned trio, and then his individual zenith between 2009 and 2011, comprise to create the story of a genuine, internationally revered, iconic English talent.
And as time passes by, with England slipping further and further down the ladder of footballing relevance, I feel like we will come to appreciate that more. Rooney was not just a domestic flat-track bully like Harry Kane; he terrorised the best teams in Europe for years.
I mean, ask yourself this: who was the last player from this country to do that? No English player has appeared in a Champions League final since 2012. The last Englishman to score in a final, save for Rooney back in 2011, was Frank Lampard in 2008. Only one English team made the quarter final last year – Leicester City – and they almost got relegated.
The bottom line, I guess, is that Rooney was the last English player of our generation to leave a lasting impact on the European stage. Nobody in this current national side threatens to generate even the slightest ripple over the next year or so.
This is a simultaneously sad and uplifting notion: sad because, well, it signals clear evidence of a miserable decline in the quality of this country’s footballing output; but uplifting in the sense that, in time, even the staunchest anti-Rooney fanatic will recognise the uniqueness of what he achieved.
Because for whatever reason, we couldn’t help but shove him to the front of every newspaper, scrutinising each movement both on and off the pitch with microscopic focus, placing him in innumerable adverts and then laughing at the poorly delivered performance that follows. His name was – and still is – never too far away from any footballing discussion. This country, in one way or another, is obsessed with Rooney.
In fact, the very reason I have written so extensively about him – mainly critically – over the years revolves around a kind of deep-rooted adoration I have for the man: a yearning for him to succeed and a yearning to grow irate when he doesn’t.
There is still a child in me, and indeed in many of us, that can’t help but scream his name in some capacity, either inwardly or outwardly. And that, I suppose, is how he will go down in history: as the boy from Merseyside we could never ignore.