Wayne Rooney is a force of nature: a natural, swaggering, street footballer who used to play the game with the reckless abandon of the best player in the playground and who made the dimensions of the pitch seem to shrink whenever he received the ball. He retains all of these qualities, despite his current loss of form, but he only really got the credit his talent deserved in England when he started scoring goals.
With a player as gifted – as potentially world-beating – as Rooney, goals suddenly seem a rather banal commodity. Goal tallies are for players like Michael Owen and Ruud van Nistelrooy: single-minded, stat-obsessed penalty box prowlers, not marauding, bulldozing, game-changing tyrants like Rooney.
The trouble for Rooney is that he is a striker, which, in the reductive lexicon of his country’s football vocabulary, means he is expected, first and foremost, to score goals. Never mind the way he strode into the national consciousness as a freakishly precocious 16-year-old man-boy, or the outrageous lobs, chips and volleys he tucked away in the early years of his Manchester United career, or the devastatingly effective partnership he formed with supposed sworn enemy Cristiano Ronaldo between 2006 and 2009. The English press did not begin comparing him to Lionel Messi, Xavi and Wesley Sneijder until he started converting six-yard headers with almost monotonous regularity against the likes of Wigan and Birmingham last season.
Rooney does not merit comparison with players like Messi, Xavi or Sneijder, but it was not by scoring goals that he was ever going to get there. The words penned on his impending departure from Old Trafford over the last few days have been tinged with an almost elegiac quality, but if anything sounded the death knell on Rooney’s aspirations to fulfil his huge teenage potential, it was a failure of imagination at both club and international level that saw him deployed first as a diligent, hard-working left-winger and then as a perfunctory, fox-in-the-box centre-forward.
Rooney is not a number 10 (if anything he is a nine-and-a-half), but in his vision of the game, his technique and his incredible physical qualities, he has enough to become the attacking fulcrum of any team. Instead he has been coached and coerced and shaped into a fairly run-of-the-mill central striker – just as Joe Cole, once the very incarnation of the kind of free-spirited, ceaselessly inventive player England wasn’t supposed to be able to produce, was coached and coerced and shaped into a fairly run-of-the-mill wide midfielder. “Those who said I’m not an out-and-out goal-scorer are probably right,” Rooney admitted in January this year.
Why was Rooney shunted to the left to accommodate Ronaldo during the 2007-08 season? Why was Dimitar Berbatov signed to lope around the territory that was once Rooney’s exclusive domain? Why did Rooney spend four dismal matches at the World Cup playing as a perfectly regulation centre-forward in a perfectly regulation 4-4-2? Why have none of his coaches had the courage to build a team with him as its wildly and erratically pumping heart?
It may be that he was never up to it. Maybe Sir Alex Ferguson realised early on that he didn’t possess the discipline or the restraint – or perhaps the breadth of personality – to be handed the keys to the United attack, as Eric Cantona once was. But it would have been a fascinating experiment, and if and when Rooney does swap Old Trafford for the City of Manchester Stadium or the Santiago Bernabéu, there will surely be few United fans who wouldn’t have swapped some of those close-range headers for just a few more lobs, chips and volleys.