What does it mean to be English? It seems a simple question, but ask a dozen people on the Clapham omnibus and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Sporting invincibility? Nah. Stiff upper lip? Nah. We’ve gone all emotional in recent years. Old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist? Nah. We do cycle, but not to church. However, if there’s one enduring, archetypal English trait, it’s the urge to hype up our sporting heroes and then give them a damn good shoeing when they don’t deliver. In this respect, the story of Wayne Rooney is a case study in Englishness.
When Rooney exploded onto the international scene at Euro 2004, we scattered rose petals at his feet. We thought he was the Messiah. The nation was gripped by Roo-mania. We chanted his name. We were consumed by Roo-mournia when he broke his metatarsal. But 10 years later, the adoration has turned to catcalls. Roo-mania has been supplanted by Roo-moania. Our erstwhile saviour has become a scapegoat, the player to blame for all of England’s failings.
Admittedly, our adoration was always tempered by a strong vein of terrace irreverence. He played for Manchester United, therefore he was always going to cop a fair amount of abuse. He was mocked for his resemblance to Shrek, for his barrel-chested physique, for his predilection for ‘mature’ hookers and for his hair transplant (‘Who’s the Scouser in the wig?’). He was never going to be a catwalk model, but nor was he regarded as a good sporting role model. He had a dangerously short fuse, he swore at referees and he never seemed satisfied with his astronomical wages.
But while Rooney’s looks and character were called into question, no one doubted his footballing skills. For a decade, he was England’s most important player; the national team’s main goal-scorer. He was always the first name on the team sheet. Until now, that is. For the first time in his international career, Rooney is no longer regarded as indispensable. His former club team-mate, Paul Scholes, recently suggested that Rooney might be past his sell-by date. ‘There’s a chance he’s worn out’, said Scholes. ‘Wayne’s peak may have been a lot younger than what we’d expect of footballers traditionally. Age 28 or 29 has been the normal “peak”. With Wayne, it could have been when he scored 27 league goals in 2011-12 when he was 26.’
The argument that Rooney is a busted flush is certainly one that is gaining currency. When England lost to Italy in their first World Cup match in Manaus last week, it was Rooney who was singled out for criticism. Although England were praised for their adventure and attacking brio, Rooney was widely slated for his sluggishness, the dereliction of his defensive duties and his failure to convert the one chance that fell to him. Unquestionably, it wasn’t Rooney’s finest hour, but he wasn’t the only player who could have performed better – Steven Gerrard, for example, was invisible. Italian sports daily La Gazetta dello Sport described England as: ‘Strong in attack, fragile in midfield, modest in defence.’ It was a brutal assessment, but a fair one. So why the narrow focus on Rooney’s performance? It’s as though the nation, having invested so much hope and expectation in Rooney, has ferociously rounded on him for having fallen short of greatness. He’s not the saviour after all, so let’s stick the boot in.