Originally published for Can They Score? on February 19 2013.
Wayne Rooney is closing-in on goal scoring records for Manchester United and England and, at 27 years of age, needs just another 56 goals to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton to top the Old Trafford all-time striking charts. Judging by his scoring rate over the past few seasons, it’s a target he should be able to hit, but what does the future hold for Rooney beyond these milestones?
As his first touch becomes evermore precarious and unreliable when off-form, we’re told he’s not a young man anymore, and received wisdom tells us that football is a young man’s game.
It’s as though on the stroke of a player’s 30th birthday, everything changes, like a werewolf caught out under a full moon. Decline snaps into action, talk of retirement soon follows and suddenly, all reports and chatter are coloured by the filter of thirty-something footballer. A biological killswitch has been pulled, ushering in nature’s inescapable laws of decay, forced on by the intensity and pace of the modern game.
The old men who do stay on for a futile fourth decade of service are treated either like selfish hogs blocking opportunities for fresh blood, or ticking time bombs of sudden incompetence, not to be trusted with another twelve months worth of contract regardless of how potent or effective they remain. Roman Abramovich has become the game’s arch-ageist of late, intent on culling his trophy laden Chelsea pensioners with little in the way of remorse, sentiment or awareness of their continued status as key players within his squad.
Stanley Matthews and Di Stefano playing into their 40s is a fanciful vision of a anachronistic past to patronised like the ancient, golden eras of senile raconteurs. Such nostalgic feats are unsustainable tales of patience and gallantry from a bygone time.
Tell that to Ryan Giggs and Javier Zanetti, who continue to perform year-on-year as if intent on collecting their pensions alongside appearance bonuses. Judging by the current trends in football, and the priorities over ball retention and possession, the age of the silver surfers of the turf may well be returning in the future. No longer be expected to leap atop the scrapheap, players of a certain age (and experience) are increasingly finding niches in which they can adapt and contribute long after their physical gifts have faded.
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, two of English football’s most emblematic players over the past decade, have experienced mixed fortunes as their bodies and roles have changed. While Gerrard struggles to make the transition from an all action blur to Liverpool’s measured, elder statesman, Lampard looks to have found solace in a deeper, less hyper-active role at Chelsea over the last 18 months while retaining his knack for scoring goals.
Rooney currently sits in strange career limbo having achieved so much so young, with discontented fans and the media mistaking his latter day functionality and humdrum consistency for a lack of fulfilment and application. What happened to the explosive teenager, prone to flying into apoplectic rage and furious brilliance, who relished those fearless charges into the heart of the opponent’s defence? We, the fans and pundits, relished it too – we lived out our own Roy of the Rovers fantasies through his play and disregard for the establishment.
He grew up, matured and his fire was replaced by pragmatism. He became a versatile and title-winning cog for a United squad that won the Champions League and four Premier League titles. Regardless, many England fans decry Ferguson’s coaching and how it has stripped the imagination and magic from “Wazza” and his game, but rather than allowing the focus of his talent to linger in his mid-twenties Rooney was handed direction and responsibility, and with it came cold, hard productivity.
Did he become the player many expected? Today, his consistency is one of statistics, delivering goals each and every year, in spite of his oscillating form. Rooney has always been, and always will be, a patchy player, but even when playing within himself – when his touch has deserted him and every pass looks poor – some sort of contribution remains, be it goals or ground covered.
However, while Rooney is undoubtedly a team player, his reputation as the world’s most selfless star player is an exaggeration at best. Last week’s game against Madrid will somehow pass on to become part of his myth in future years, lauding Rooney’s performance as a heroic self-sacrifice for the greater good. In truth he was poor defensively and failed to fulfil his duties. Rather than being Manchester United’s martyr, at times he was Madrid’s patsy, with Coentrao taking full advantage of his dallying to threaten De Gea directly. His reluctance to mark Pirlo cost England dear in the summer as they lost out to Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2012 – a disciplined, supportive role he once excelled at when dropping deep to harry opposing midfielders.
Could it be that rather than lacking graft, form or quality, Rooney is finding it harder to keep his mind and body sharp outside of the game? His lifestyle choices, weight gain and off-the-pitch professionalism have long been problematic. Last year he was sent home after having indulged the night before, turning up to training during an intense run-in, in no fit state to work. Lager and pies can’t be helping his now timid turn of pace or his muscle memory’s amnesia when he’s lacking the confidence to shake off the rust by sheer force of will.
Marking Rooney’s personal commitment to his own fitness against Giggs is as unfair as the misleading comparisons with Ronaldo, but with his passing ability and vision, Rooney has the potential to be remain an asset at United for another decade. He would likely drop back, following in the footsteps of Scholes rather than the Welshman’s yoga fuelled longevity.
Following last week’s performances by Welbeck, Jones and De Gea at the Bernabeu, Sir Alex re-affirmed his personal commitment to youth in the best traditions of United’s patient development of talent. As shown by his faith in the two remaining old boys of 1995 however, he also remains a champion of experience, but Rooney must show he can maintain himself on and off the pitch to remain at Old Trafford. The youngsters will need a leader and a role model, and the position is there for Rooney if he can prove he wants it.
But does? After winning everything alongside his Portugese friend – an intrepid voyage of glory and discovery undertaken by two boyish recruits who would return men – there may not be enough left in the game to inspire Rooney to strive for that next level.
Robin van Persie is now the headlining name on United’s teamsheet. Rooney can be rested to the bench or even dropped from the squad entirely. Whether the Dutchman turns out to be the competition, muse or collaborator Rooney needs, only time will tell.