Offside, 10 April

Halt the sermons about the pitfalls of football stardom and let Rooney savour his moment of glory.

Duleep Allirajah

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England has been gripped by Rooney-mania. ‘Monster Raving Rooney Party’, bellowed the Sun after the teenage wunderkind’s breathtaking debut against Turkey. Such is the demand for Rooney’s name on replica shirts that sports shops have reportedly run out of the letter Y.

The assassin-faced baby is said to be vying with John Lennon and Dixie Dean in a BBC Radio Merseyside poll to find the greatest ever Liverpudlian. But are we in danger of heaping too much expectation on to the shoulders of a 17-year-old boy from Croxteth who was sitting behind a school desk this time last year?

This is Wayne Rooney’s first season in professional football. He has only started once for England and one game does not a Maradona make. He has only made seven first-team starts for Everton, played 966 minutes of Premiership football, and scored four goals (hey, just call me Statto). His early promotion to the national team speaks volumes for the poverty of England’s striking options.

All these things are true, but can you blame us for getting a little bit excited? For too long England have been over-reliant on long balls over the top for Owen and Heskey to chase, or on David Beckham’s corners and free kicks. In the recent internationals against Macedonia, Australia and Lichtenstein, England looked like a team chronically bereft of imagination and creativity.

England started nervously against Turkey. But after half an hour Roonaldo turned on the style. A cheeky back-heel, a spot of ball-juggling, a pin-point 40 yard pass – if he didn’t have the face of a scally joyrider we would have mistaken him for a Brazilian. Every time Rooney touched the ball the England fans were buzzing with excitement and Motty was gibbering like a chimpanzee on heat. In one sublime moment Rooney went on a weaving run straight at the heart of the Turkish defence before threading a perfectly weighted ball to Michael Owen who was only thwarted by goalkeeper Rustu Recber’s alertness.

Not since Gazza waddled off the international stage have we seen an English footballer who can run with the ball and take on defenders. Rooney’s first touch is excellent (Emile Heskey take note); he can open up defences with a shimmy, a change of pace, or a killer pass; and (are you listening Emile?) he can score goals too. Over-excited? In this instance wild hysteria seems an entirely reasonable and proportionate response.

The most notable characteristic of Rooneymania is not the hyperbole, which invariably attends every important England game, but the widely expressed fear that the teenage star could easily be crushed by the overbearing weight of national expectation. ‘He’s a fantastic prospect – don’t kill him’, said England defender Sol Campbell on the eve of the Turkey game. ‘When someone like him comes along don’t destroy him.’

Although Rooney demonstrated against Turkey that he possesses the physical brawn to hold off defenders as well as the mental toughness to perform in a high-pressure game, great emphasis is placed on his fragility. Everton manager David Moyes has asked for Rooney to be rested from England’s summer friendly against South Africa. ‘Wayne has to have some holidays and some break and if he doesn’t then we will be looking at burn-out’, warned Moyes. ‘Taking him away continuously I don’t think will be right for a boy who is just 17.’

Sir Bobby Robson echoed the sentiment. ‘Rooney needs protection and guidance’, said the former England coach. ‘It’s important that we don’t go overboard and ruin a superstar. There’s a danger of that.’

‘I went on benders at the wrong time and that was my fault’, warned Paul Gascoigne. ‘To him I say: Be careful, enjoy your football, and learn from my mistakes.’ Why can’t we just let the lad savour his moment of glory without this incessant sermonising about the pitfalls of football stardom? Yes, he will have to deal with the demands of fame, success, adulation, and untold wealth (poor bastard), not to mention the inflated expectations of a football-besotted nation, but so what?

The ability to cope with high expectations is in the job description. It is what separates great footballers from the wasters and screw-ups. How typical of our aspiration-lite society that we are as much preoccupied with the vulnerability of our heroes as with their achievements. The only person who doesn’t seem unduly bothered by the burden of expectations placed on Wayne Rooney is Everton’s owner Bill Kenwright. ‘If our expectations are high that’s probably good for the boy and will help keep him up there’, Kenwright told Radio Five Live.

That’s the spirit. Throw him in at the deep end and see if he sinks or swims…or even if he walks on water.

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