It’s hard to believe that Wayne Rooney is 29, even harder to believe that he’ll be 30 in October. The kid burst on to the scene with an incredible shot to beat David Seaman, and then his Manchester United debut was just sensational – he scored a hat trick in a 6-2 win over Fenerbahce in the Champions League, three wonderful finishes including a sumptuous free kick reminiscent of David Beckham in his pomp.
At that point, Rooney had the potential to be one of the greatest ever players in English football, yet now there’s some debate over whether he fulfilled his potential or not.
The truth is, it’s hard to class him in any category other than alongside the England greats. He’s still only 29 so he has some time left on his side. He’ll retire as England’s all-time leading goalscorer, barring something catastrophic. He only needs two goals to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton and snatch the record himself. The same can be said at club level, too. Rooney is only 19 behind Charlton for United – he could break both records with a decent 2015/16 season.
So why is there debate? The man has won almost everything there is to win at club level (do we really think that he’ll suddenly become a great by winning an FA Cup?) and he’s not the only Englishman never to win a World Cup. So far, that seems to be the only thing that Sir Bobby Charlton can hold over Rooney. Rooney is the best English player of his generation, and surely he’s been judged unfairly if there’s any debate about this.
The problem is that he just seems to lack that X-factor. He goes missing in games or doesn’t run them with the regularity of a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo. Even on their off-days they score goals and create, or they look dangerous every time they touch the ball. Rooney’s off-days seem to make him invisible, and he doesn’t have the aura of the real top class players. When Rooney isn’t on form, you don’t get the same sense of danger when he’s on the ball as you do when Messi or Ronaldo pick up possession.
The reason is that he’s never found a position. Ronaldo and Messi are goalscorers, but they’re also dribblers. They’re explosive and can bring their team from the halfway line to the edge of the box all by themselves. Rooney doesn’t have that.
Zidane was an attacking midfielder who got into positions to hurt the opposition with a killer pass or a silky turn. Andrea Pirlo or Pep Guardiola were deep-lying playmakers who ran the game.
Pele and Ronaldo – the Brazilian, R9 variety – scored shed loads of goals because that was their sole job, unlike the others who had deeper duties to attend to.
Rooney doesn’t fit any of these niches. He’s not a deep-lying playmaker, even if people think that’s where he’ll end up as he ages, like Steven Gerrard. He’ll not be remembered for that – how many deep-lying playmakers are the all-time top scorers for club and country?
But he’s not a poacher either. He goes too deep to collect the ball and try to dictate the play. But then neither is he an attacking midfielder who lives to play the killer pass – there are more capable players in those positions, so Rooney plays up front.
And that’s what hurts his image. It’s too hard to pin him down, so we have trouble sensing whether or not he’s had a good game for the most part. And when he goes missing, it’s because he was neither striker, nor midfielder, nor playmaker. When he has a bad game, he’s simply nothing.
Rooney isn’t any of those things. He was always a boy who just wanted to play football, to get on the ball and play with it. That’s why he’s a striker who comes so deep – he just wants to be involved. Being forced into a position will not help Rooney, he’ll always be a square peg in a round hole.
No position will ever truly suit him, but as he gets older he’ll have to run around less. But either way it’s time to get off his back, time to stop asking whether or not he’s a world class player. He’ll be top scorer for club and country soon enough, and that will surely settle the debate with numbers.
Instead, it’s time to embrace that Rooney is one of a kind and let him play like it. That’s when club and country will get the benefit of having such an incredible player in their ranks. Let Rooney be Rooney.