The rise and fall of Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney is only the latest victim of England's Messiah complex.
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.
The fetishisation of a single individual in a team sport is typically English. We’ve swallowed the Roy of the Rovers myth. We believe that one magical player can alchemise an entire team. Gary Neville, speaking in Rooney’s defence, quite rightly bemoaned our national fixation with heroic individuals. ‘Our country love it, creating a drama around one player’, said Neville. ‘I’ve never known there not be an obsession around one player. It was Gascoigne from 1996 to 1998, Beckham from 2000 to 2006. From 2006, it was Rooney and Beckham. Now it’s Rooney to 2014. Unfortunately – or fortunately, because he is a big player – this time it’s Wayne Rooney.’
It’s clear that Rooney has never really lived up to his ‘White Pele’ billing. But it was always wrong to invest such faith in one man. Wayne Rooney was never going to single-handedly transform English football. He alone could never make English players more comfortable in possession of the ball. He was never going to succeed where Premiership youth academies had failed: in producing technically adept, tactically literate players. He was never Roy of the Rovers. He was never Hegel’s world-historical individual or Nietzsche’s Übermensch. He was just a gifted street footballer from Croxteth who had the misfortune of being anointed the Messiah.
The English love to put our heroes on a pedestal and then knock them off again. But sometimes we skip the putting-them-on-a-pedestal phase. We just pile in and give some hapless public figure a good kicking. Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley didn’t even get a chance to be hyped up before England fans started to stick the boot in. A whopping 17,500 people signed an online petition demanding Cleverley’s exclusion from England’s World Cup squad. Phil Neville is another footballer who was nowhere near the pedestal when we started giving him a shoeing. The poor chap has never been forgiven for giving away the penalty against Romania which sealed England’s exit from Euro 2000.
Now Neville is a BBC pundit, but the nation is still giving him grief. He was mercilessly pilloried on Twitter for his monotone co-commentary during England’s defeat to Italy. One reviewer described Neville as possessing a ‘delivery style honed through careful study of the assonance of Smiler from Last of the Summer Wine. And he wasn’t the only Neville to feel the heat. A 60-year-old radiator salesman from Suffolk received thousands of abusive messaged addressed to his Twitter handle, @philneville. We might not be world-beaters at football, but, when it comes to pathetic armchair trolling, we’re peerless.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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