England: still waiting for the Chosen One

The travails of would-be messiahs Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney raise awkward questions for English football.

Duleep Allirajah

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Forget April, surely March is the cruellest month. Cruel for obsolescent football messiahs, that is. First, Wayne Rooney was dropped for the biggest game of Manchester United’s season – the Champions League tie against Real Madrid – prompting fevered speculation that his days at Old Trafford are numbered. Then, this week, another England saviour, Michael Owen, decided to hang up his shooting boots (which, to be fair, hadn’t done much shooting of late).

When Owen scored his famous goal against Argentina as a precocious 18-year-old in the 1998 World Cup, he was hailed as the golden boy of English football. We thought he would be banging in the goals for years to come. And his goal-scoring record for Liverpool and England is nothing to sniff at. But his potential was never completely fulfilled. In truth, Owen’s glittering career rather fizzled out in his mid-twenties. His last spell at a major club – Real Madrid – finished in 2005. His last appearance for England came in 2008. I saw Owen make one of his rare appearances in a Stoke City shirt recently in an FA Cup tie at Selhurst Park. Bereft of pace, the striker was completely anonymous.

Where did it all go wrong for Michael Owen? Some blame the gee-gees. He was supposedly more interested in his racehorses than his football. A more plausible explanation is that injuries robbed Owen of the searing pace that enabled him to terrorise defenders. I think there’s another explanation. Football evolved and left Michael Owen behind. He was most effective playing alongside a big target man in a conventional 4-4-2 system. These days, most top clubs have switched to 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Owen has simply been unable to adapt to the modern game. No longer quick enough to play on the flanks, not physical enough to operate as a target man and not creative enough to play in the hole, Owen became a man out of time.

Unlike Owen, Wayne Rooney’s career is far from finished. He is 27 and still one of the first names on England manager Roy Hodgson’s team sheet. The goals haven’t dried up either. Last season, he bagged 34 for United and, although this hasn’t been a vintage year, he has still scored a respectable 16 goals for his club. But his exclusion from Fergie’s starting 11 against Madrid suggests that he is no long indispensable at United. And, well, how to put this? There’s the nagging feeling that, much like Owen, he’s never truly realised his potential.

He was hailed as the ‘Croxteth Pelé’ when he burst onto the scene. ‘Remember the name: Wayne Rooney’, screamed Clive Tyldesley when the precocious 16-year old scored a last-minute winner for Everton against Arsenal in October 2002. Two years later, Rooney was officially anointed England’s new messiah when he lit up Euro 2004. In a recent Observer column lamenting Rooney’s unfulfilled potential, Daniel Taylor reminds us why he was such an exciting prospect: ‘The young Rooney had raw, explosive qualities that could bewitch his audience and make traffic cones out of defenders. He had that splash of je ne sais quoi – Luis Suárez has a sprinkling of the same – that meant there was a frisson of excitement every time he had the ball in front of him.’

Rooney is unquestionably a top-class footballer who has performed at the highest level for over a decade. He has amassed goals, medals and England caps. There’s no arguing with any of that. But he’s no Lionel Messi, is he? Nor is he the magician that Paul Gascoigne sporadically was during a career ravaged by injuries and ‘refuelling’ problems. ‘He is now a mere speck in Ronaldo’s wing-mirrors’, remarked Daniel Taylor wistfully. When Rooney scored a stunning goal from outside the penalty box against Norwich earlier this month, it reminded us of the player he used to be. Why did those wonder goals dry up? And, more to the point, why did the wunderkind never develop, as we hoped he would, into the English Pelé?

Our prospective messiahs repeatedly fail to live up to their billing. Why is that? Do they just get burnt out? Are the rigours of the modern game too physically or mentally demanding? It’s a seductive theory. Until you consider Ryan Giggs who, at the ripe old age of 39 is still a class act. Daniel Taylor puts forward two possible explanations for Rooney’s career trajectory. ‘Perhaps the hype went too far’, he suggests. Arguably our expectations were unrealistic in the first place. It wouldn’t be the first time a footballer has carried the over-inflated hopes of a nation. Michael Owen, Joe Cole, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and, more recently, Jack Wilshere have all been lauded as the saviours of English football. In doing so, we’ve set them up to fail.

Taylor offers a second explanation: ‘Maybe the spark was coached out of him as United tried to smooth out the rough edges and mould him into a more complete footballer.’ Rooney is certainly a willing team player who is prepared to play in wide positions and track back. One wonders whether Rooney’s selflessness has tempered his swagger and mercurial instincts. I fear that the same thing may happen to Wilfried Zaha when he goes to Old Trafford. Will he be ordered to cut out the party tricks by Fergie? At Crystal Palace, he is allowed free rein to express himself and try to beat defenders. At United, he can expect a full blast from the gaffer’s hairdryer if he tries too many stepovers and gives the ball away cheaply.

Maybe Rooney has been refined into a less exciting, more risk-averse footballer. But I think this provides only a partial explanation. The problem, I think, is that our coaches are incapable of teaching tactical nous, guile and creativity. That’s why English football is littered with so many failed messiahs. We can’t take our raw talent and fashion them into an Eden Hazard, a David Silva or a Xavi. Rooney can play as a lone striker, but he’s not in the same class as Van Persie or Drogba. And though he often drops deep in search of the ball, he doesn’t have the touch, vision or passing ability to operate as a playmaker.

We shouldn’t blame the false messiahs. It’s the production system which is flawed. English football is good at producing athletes, but we’re incapable of nurturing artists.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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