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There is a strange dichotomy to the perception of the career of Wayne Rooney both in a Manchester United and an England shirt. As the striker announced that he will retire after this World Cup qualifying campaign, the assessments of his performance were out in force once more, with projections that he should still surpass Peter Shilton’s cap record during the next two years.
Such an achievement would make him England’s most capped player as well as their highest goalscorer. And yet a player who has done that, as well as having won five league titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups, a Champions League (as well as scoring in one of the further two finals he played in) and a World Club Cup where he scored the decisive goal, stands in the dock while many take the time (as this column has done in the past) to debate the reality of his achievement against the potential of his ability from when he first broke on the scene for Everton.
Rooney is identified as Jose Mourinho’s biggest problem but as this column illustrated last week, he has been a pivotal figure in the new manager’s team. His performance is scrutinised more than any other because his return of 15 goals last season was seen as an underwhelming return in a campaign where his form was generally disappointing. With the introduction of genuine world class stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, the requirement for Rooney to be at their level is being watched by thousands of keen eyes.
His fans will point to the statistics to justify his inclusion. His critics will say that’s the bare minimum and he’s still on borrowed time. This is the cross to bear of a player who, for around five years of his career, lived with the comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at a time when English football was on the decline and he was identified as the most culpable player. It didn’t help that Rooney wasn’t universally loved at Manchester United after the two public episodes which surrounded his possible exit from the club in 2010 and 2013; United players are also not universally welcomed by England supporters either.
So there are some looking at Rooney’s achievements, as he stands four goals away from breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s United goal record too, and providing their own judgment of whether he has fulfilled or missed out on his potential. There are those who say he had done little better since his blockbuster volley against Newcastle in 2005; they expected that standard every week, and dismiss similarly spectacular efforts such as the goal on the half-volley against West Ham at Upton Park a couple of years ago.
But even those who can accept his list of achievements and the quality of goals he has scored struggle on the point where it is to decide if Rooney has done everything he could. He is, after all, seen as the figurehead - as the captain always is - of the England team, and is the central figure of their recent tournament humiliations.
It is forgotten that he was the first star player introduced after the so-called golden generation, and that his England team-mates are put together from the 33% or so available to the England manager in the Premier League. Once upon a time England boasted such strength in depth in the goalkeeper position that they had rotate arguably the best two in the world, while another, Alex Stepney, broke the transfer record for a goalkeeper when he moved as a reserve from Chelsea to Manchester United.
It was an embarrassment of riches; this past week, Joe Hart found himself signing for a club who finished 12th in Serie A last season.
Yes, it’s a gap of 45 years, but even in the fairly recent history England had Peter Shilton and David Seaman.
Rooney was also one of the first teenagers to be thrust so powerfully into the limelight; introduced to the world of millions of pounds in his early career, and into the world of those keen to exploit his marketing potential, the player also adjusted to changes in position to try and benefit the team as a whole.
In that respect Rooney has been the consummate professional; there’s no denying that he’s a popular player with his team mates. But there’s the other side - a career nadir in a game at Swansea in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season was the catalyst for further poor performances as observers criticised his dedication. Rooney loves football, of that there is no denying, but did he love himself as much as Ronaldo did? For once, that’s not an insult to the latter. Ronaldo’s ability to still perform at the level he has for the last few years is in part attributed to his lifestyle.
The argument about the sacrifice he took allowing Ronaldo to take centre stage at Old Trafford, and the impact that had on his own career, could be discussed, but the truth is Ronaldo took the opportunity and dominated and if Rooney was at the same level at the time he would have been in a position to do the same. That is no shame on Rooney but nonetheless, the perception that he should be at the same level remained, though for what reason, it remains unclear.
Rooney has been the figurehead of this generation of England players whose reputation has fluctuated to the wildly over-rated to the worrying early indications of the kind of squad selection desperation which has inflicted the other home nations. Fraser Forster is a good solid goalkeeper but it has long been the case that England’s third goalkeeper has been nowhere near the capable level one expects of a goalkeeper for the national team. Forster has a solid case to feel he could be number one, which, with all due respect to him, says so much about the state of affairs. England fans found it humorous that Northern Ireland had such an addictive chant for their striker Will Grigg but will they find it quite as funny in a couple of tournament’s time, when they are filling their own national squad with players from the third tier?
The potential versus achievement debate, as far as Wayne Rooney is concerned, is a complex argument because of the many difficult contributing factors.
Has the ability to look spectacular, can be entertaining, but flatters to deceive on the world stage and isn’t quite as good as some think. The same could be said for the Premier League as a product, particularly over the last five years, as it could be said for Wayne Rooney. Doesn’t English football simply have the Wayne Rooney that it created?
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.