As he prepares to watch the country he’s captained for the last three years move into a new era without him, after tearfully waving goodbye to the Old Trafford faithful at the end of Michael Carrick’s testimonial last Sunday, Wayne Rooney must be wondering how both England and Manchester United have decided their skipper is beyond his expiration at the relatively tender age of just 31.
Of course, Rooney isn’t the first or the last attacking player whose abilities have waned prematurely, after being promoted to not only senior football but also super-stardom so young. Playing 37 games per season from the age of 17 onwards, as Rooney has done since 2002/03, is an enormous physical burden – one that now appears to have caught up with him.
But it was only five years ago Rooney enjoyed the most prolific campaign of his career, almost taking United to the Premier League title with a return of 27 goals in 34 top flight outings. It was only three years ago he mustered up 19 goals across all competitions during the most disastrous Red Devils campaign in recent history under David Moyes. The decline since has been sharp and staggering; which suggests it can’t all be down to ageing legs.
Sir Alex Ferguson once declared marriage only helps footballers, settling them down and stopping them from getting involved in mischief as the natural maturity that comes with accepting extra responsibility seeps in.
But for a footballing force as explosive, aggressive, instinctive and unpredictable as Rooney during his peak years, when he was bullying defenders for fun at domestic, continental and international level like during Euro 2004, you have to wonder whether maturity has reduced rather than added to his game.
That’s not to suggest Rooney should have never tied the knot; he’s been married to Coleen since 2006 and has produced copious scintillating football since then. Two years later, in fact, he helped United win the Champions League. But since that 27-goal haul during 2011/12, there have been some huge changes in Rooney’s life, both on and off the field, that have obliged him to transform from being an ever-on-the-edge footballer one dodgy tackle away from a temper tantrum to a leader so level-headed he verges upon passive.
Indeed, in the last five years, Rooney has become a father for the second and third time, penned a five-and-a-half-year contract and inherited the armband not only at Manchester United but also within the England fold. That’s a drastic change in such a short space of time, one that has required the boisterous, controversial and immature Rooney to completely revolutionise his mindset.
He now looks to set a good example for his sons and his team-mates, but it was always the unapologetic badness – the typically English grit, the nasty and naughty tackles, the youthful arrogance and swagger – that made Rooney such a special player. Not necessarily marriage but certainly the responsibilities of triple-fatherhood and a double captaincy appear to have taken that out of him.
Which is exactly why Tottenham and England fans should hope Dele Alli never listens to those who argue nastiness must be removed from his game. No doubt, it’s lead to many unsavoury incidents already in his short career, but it’s also what gives him the right mentality to be such a talented, effective and fearless young player. Just like Rooney, his ability and his naughty streak are two sides of the same coin; they can’t truly exist without each other.
Make no mistake, Rooney’s career is far from over. He’s still English football’s greatest talent in a generation, he’s still Manchester United and England’s top scorer. He’s still a five-time Premier League winner and a 119-cap Three Lions international. And, most importantly, he’s still just 31.
But for him to be anything more than a big name, and for him to work his way back into Gareth Southgate’s plans, it’s vital Rooney rediscovers his hunger, aggression and nastiness at a club that won’t hand him the captain’s armband and a bumper five-year contract. Sir Alex Ferguson always tried to keep Rooney on his toes; Wazza needs to find a new club prepared to do the same.