When Wayne Rooney made his Premier League debut for Everton against Tottenham Hotspurs at Goodison Park on 17 August 2002, the away fans screamed, “Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya?” Rooney, then 16, shut them up by assisting the first goal of the game.
Two months later, Everton were chasing a game at 1-1 against Arsenal. The Gunners were unbeaten in 30 games. Rooney was brought into a match that was in its last throes—aching for something special to bring it back to life. In the last minute, the Liverpool-born teenager expertly controlled a long ball, took a few touches, and sent a shot from 30 yards out which didn’t just crash into the back of the net, but scorched an entry into the record books of English football. Everton won, Arsenal finally lost, and a new superstar was born.
“Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!” commentator Clive Tyldesley screamed in disbelief.
And if Rooney’s career was to be summed up in one word, it would be disbelief. Whether it’s the £27 million (Rs217 crore now) that Manchester United paid for him in 2004, or the fact that he had already played 50 times for Everton before turning 18, or his debut hat trick for United in the Champions League, Rooney’s career is defined by audacity.
But if Rooney exploded on to the football world in a sudden, unshackled burst of energy and enthusiasm, then the demise of his career has been slow and painful. For the first time in 14 years, the England captain has been dropped by his country—he made his England debut against Australia when he was 17 years and 111 days old. One hundred and sixteen caps and a record 53 goals later, Rooney’s international career may well be over.
His prospects at Manchester United are equally bleak. The last time Rooney played a full 90 minutes was against Wigan Athletic in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January. He last played in a European competition in August 2016. United manager José Mourinho has left him out of three Europa League knockout games, and didn’t pick him for the FA Cup fifth-round game or the League Cup final. He has made just nine starts in 18 Premier League appearances, taken just 31 shots and scored only twice. For a man who has played 550 times at The Theatre of Dreams in Manchester, scoring 250 goals and creating 145 others, these numbers elicit pity rather than frustration.
Age has nothing to do with the snubs. England manager Gareth Southgate has recalled Jermain Defoe, who is 34. At United, Zlatan Ibrahimović leads the line at the age of 35 and is expected to do so even when he turns 36 next year. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is eight months older than Rooney and won Fifa’s best player in the world award a few months back. But Rooney is just 31, usually the age when experience and fitness come together for most players to create the perfect recipe on a football pitch. Not for Rooney though—the once raging bull, foaming at the mouth to tear defenders into pieces and make stadiums quake, is now a mere shadow of himself, chasing balls that don’t need chasing.
Rooney’s problem has always been his body.
“Even if I don’t train for a week, I put on two or three (pounds), but when I get back to Carrington for the first day of work, I’m in for a shock. The scales in the club gym tell me I’ve put on a few more pounds than expected—seven. Seven! Then I remember—I drank a few bevvies while I was away. I’m stocky. I’m not like Ryan Giggs, all bone and lean muscle. I gain weight quite easily. I need to be sharp, which means my fitness has to be right to play well. If it isn’t, it shows,” he wrote in his 2012 autobiography Wayne Rooney: My Decade In The Premier League.
Former United manager Alex Ferguson spoke of Rooney being fully mature physically even when he was just 18. For ex-United defender Rio Ferdinand, it means that Rooney’s real body age could be more than his age on paper: “He is 31 years old but he has probably got the mileage of a 36-year-old with what he has done in his career and the velocity that he plays at, the scrutiny and the pressure. In fact, he is probably in a 40-year-old athlete’s body. Most of those games he has played, especially the first 13 years, his stats showed he had probably out-run everybody in the team.”
Ferdinand’s words came after Rooney became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer overtaking Sir Bobby Charlton, with his 250th strike—a free kick against Stoke City in a January league match that was like a magician’s final act before he takes a bow, the curtains closing on the stage rapidly with no guarantee of an encore performance as time ticks away.
Games fly past and a new generation threatens to cut short a career that has seen him win everything club football has to offer, along with the ebb and crash of controversies that include flirting with arch-rivals Manchester City, criticizing England’s supporters on camera during World Cup 2010 and being photographed while getting plastered at random parties across the country.
Rooney’s greatest test was in the winter transfer window in January, when there was interest from China. Despite his waning form, he remains a popular figure due to his Manchester United legacy, but he remained with a team which hardly needs him. As he once said, he is “English through and through”, so it’s hard to see a lumbering Rooney in Asia. Top European teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, the Milan clubs or those in England don’t have room for someone whose first touch makes his feet seem like they’re made of lead. A crippling £300,000 per week wage, which has remained unchanged since the contract he signed in 2014, does not help his case either.
Chelsea were interested in buying him a couple of seasons ago, with Mourinho at the helm. But the same coach is now forced to leave Rooney out of his plans. Mourinho started him in his first five league games in charge at United, culminating in a terrible performance against Watford. Rooney was given the chance to prove his case, and he lost it, much like his pace and agility.
“I cannot guarantee that I’m here next week, how can I guarantee that a player is here next season? What I can guarantee is that, if one day Wayne leaves the club, it is not because I want him to leave the club. I would never push a legend of this club to another destiny. You have to ask him if he sees himself staying in the club for the rest of his career or sees himself moving,” Mourinho had said in late February, when asked if he was willing to sell Rooney. Since that interview, Rooney has played a total of 70 minutes in over a month—a leg injury forcing him further down the pecking order.
Even today, Tyldesley’s words make sense—“Remember the name: Wayne Rooney”—but in a more pleading fashion. As if to will fans into remembering a man who used to be a phenomenal player, the one who scored an overhead-kick winner in the Manchester derby in 2011, and celebrated with his arms outstretched, soaking the adrenalin fuelled by the fans who fondly call him the “White Pelé”. Now the same fans whisper in distress when he plays. Since he burst on to the scene as a teenager, Rooney’s career has been characterized by explosive goals, bristling pace and a fiery desire to win. Now it resembles a candle in the wind.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.