Wayne Rooney’s last stand
An aging ruler walks slowly to the balcony. His faithful, now less faithful, look up at him as he asks — pleads — that they trust him one last time.
In the kingdom of English soccer no one has had more influence on the game than Wayne Rooney over the last 12 years. He’s been, for better or worse, a nation’s one true hope of erasing 50 years of soccer failure. But in the weeks leading up to Euro 2016, there have been calls for Rooney, England’s all-time top goalscorer, to be dropped from the starting XI, something unheard of just a few months ago.
"Rooney divides opinion like no other player," Jason Burt wrote in the Telegraph. "There are those who simply believe it is unthinkable to leave him out with his experience, then there are those — like me — who think the team is moving on."
Last season Rooney struggled with injuries and despite finishing strong and winning his first FA Cup, he scored just eight league goals with Manchester United, the lowest of his United career. His supporters chalked up the lack of goals to playing under manager Louis Van Gaal’s straight-jacket, pass-backward offense, but those that watched him throughout his career, saw a player struggling to glide by defenders the way he once had.
In March, before this year’s Euros, England played a warm-up game against Germany without the 30-year-old Rooney, and the attack, led by Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane, was electric, scoring three times. Two month’s later they stuttered to a 1-0 win over Portugal with Rooney at the focal point of the offense. Shortly after, on the Sun back page, a story ran titled, "Fans demand Rooney be dropped for Euro 2016."
The displeasure in the team’s captain seemed so overwhelming, that just days before the start of the tournament England manager Roy Hodgson, whose own job is on the line, was probed about Rooney’s role on the team and scoffed, "You’re talking about the player who has played 111 games for England and scored 52 goals, so perhaps his best position is anywhere on the field."
It was scenes of delirium. Geoff Hurst just scored his third goal of the match against West Germany in the last moments of extra time, and English commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered the immortal line, "They think it’s all over: It is now!" After the final whistle, captain Bobby Moore led the 1966 England World Cup team up the steps of Wembley Stadium to the royal box where Queen Elizabeth handed them the Jules Rimet trophy in front of 96,000 raving fans. Standing behind Moore was Bobby Charlton, England’s top goal scorer, hands to his face, weeping.
"Almost everyone over age fifty can tell you where they were on July 30, 1966, and many of those then unborn have heard the stories and seen the final," Tony Mason wrote in the book, National Identity and Global Sports Events.
Just 16 years removed from England’s greatest humiliation, losing to a group of amateur and part-time USA players at the 1950 World Cup, manager Alf Ramsey, with his plodding long-ball style, found a formula that suited his players’ skills. After the ’66 final, England’s Football Association Secretary Denis Follows said, "Everyone now looks to England to lead the world again."
This, of course, should have been the beginning of an English soccer dynasty, but instead average teams followed, then the scourge of hooliganism, and one penalty kick heartbreak after another in both the Euros and the World Cup. Prodigies came and went, and English soccer fell further into global mediocrity.
Then, on June 17, 2004, a King was crowned. Inserted into the lineup at the Euros against Switzerland, Rooney, in his first major tournament, was breathtaking. An 18-year-old swashbuckler with the face of a pit bull and a grown man’s body, he scored from a header, then later cut inside and bludgeoned the ball just past the goalkeeper’s near post for another. As if constructed in a Frankenstein-esque laboratory for English legends, he had all the traits of recent greats stitched into the fabric of his otherworldly ability — the improvisational skills of Paul Gascoigne, the speed of Michael Owen, and the finishing abilities of the great Gary Lineker. When he walked off the pitch, the traveling Three Lions’ fans rose and gave him a standing ovation.
In the quarterfinals against Portugal, after he’d already scored four goals in the tournament, he broke his foot while tracking down the ball. Without him England lost on penalty kicks and were out of the tournament. Fans though were only momentarily disheartened; after all, they’d peered down and seen the future, a fearless teenager from the working class neighborhood of Croxteth, in Liverpool.
Rooney, one of three boys, was always a natural with the ball at his feet. When he was 15, rumors of his exploits with the Everton youth team made their way to Steven Gerrard. Already an England mainstay and Liverpool captain, Gerrard showed up unannounced at one of Rooney’s youth matches to see if the hype was real. Rooney scored twice, but Gerrard was most impressed by his Northern England fighting nature. "He had that Scouse (Liverpool) swagger, and Scouse attitude," Gerrard told the BBC.
In one of Rooney’s first senior matches for Everton in 2002, he came off the bench and scored the game-winner against Arsenal. A rocket from 25 yards away. The announcer proclaimed, "Remember the name: Wayne Rooney." After the game, while his teammates were out celebrating, the 16-year-old Rooney met up with his local friends in Croxteth and played a game of pick-up street soccer until after dark. When his manager David Moyes found out, he was livid, but the fans ate it up. They saw themselves in him. Already balding and pudgy, he was rough around the edges. He loved the 90’s English rock band Oasis, and collected guitars. On the pitch he played with the enthusiasm of a kid who fell asleep dreaming of playing for his favorite club only to wake up and realize it wasn’t a dream at all.
"He was a bit wild, but as well, technically he was hugely gifted." Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said recently. "Everybody loved him in England."
But with love comes attachment, then expectations. Paparazzi began peering into details of his teenage life and photographers staked out his parents’ home — fans craved more. By the time he moved to Manchester United after the 2004 Euros, he was no longer insulated by potential. He was the country’s brightest — and perhaps only — hope to take England back to the glories of ’66. Like Sir Bobby Charlton, Rooney would lead the attack and pick apart the world’s best defenses.
Immediately, however, his lack of maturity came into question. He could be petulant, cursing at referees and opponents. During one game against Fulham in 2009, he picked up the ball and slung it toward the referee, then punched the corner flag after he was sent off the pitch. Whenever Sir Alex Ferguson could keep him in check, he was arguably as good as any player that England has ever produced. He’s won five Premier League titles, a Champions League title with Cristiano Ronaldo and after last season became both the second highest goal scorer and assist man in Premier League history. But Rooney knows, as well as anyone, that unless he leads England to a World Cup or Euro crown, no amount of domestic trophies or scoring titles could ever satiate the nation’s fans.
At the World Cup in 2006, England had, on paper, one of their best teams in decades. The so-called golden generation of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard were at or near their prime and had decimated teams in the qualifiers. In a 0-0 game in the quarterfinals, Rooney got tangled up with Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho, then stamped on him in the mid-section and was sent off. Famously, Manchester United teammate Ronaldo winked toward the bench as Rooney walked to the tunnel. England eventually lost on penalties (again).
In the postgame press conference England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson pleaded with the media not to "kill" Rooney in the same way Beckham was eviscerated after his 1998 World Cup meltdown and red card against Argentina. The fans and media seemed to comply — to an extent — and Rooney had his best domestic season in 2009-10, winning Premier League player of the year, and was scoring goals with the national team at Bobby Charlton-esque rates. But every two years, as each major tournament came along, he began to be labeled a player unable to deal with the spotlight.
2010 was again billed as England’s best chance of making a deep World Cup run, but the tournament was doomed from the beginning. During training camp there were rumors of unrest between players and manager Fabio Capello, and when the matches started, England — but mostly Rooney — were abysmal. All of the joyful spontaneity he played with earlier in his England career was gone. Through nine career World Cup games, he was scoreless.
When he walked off the field after the last game, a 4-1 debacle against rival Germany in the Round of 16, Rooney looked into the camera as the traveling England fans voiced their displeasure and sarcastically said, "Nice to see the home fans boo ya. That’s a real supporter."
When he got back to England fans hadn’t yet turned on him, but the English tabloids, like sharks smelling blood, prodded deeper into his personal life. In September, the Sunday Mirror splashed their front pages with revelations he’d cheated on his wife multiple times with a high-priced call girl. In response he barricaded himself from the press and slogged through the domestic campaign scoring only 11 goals — 15 less than the year before.
"On the pitch he was no longer viewed as sacred," BBC journalist Sanjeev Shetty said. "That was a crossroads for him."
At the time he was still only 25 years old but in some ways, five years later, he’s still stuck at the same fork in the road.
Less than a week before England’s first game against Russia on Saturday at Euro 2016, reporters caught a glimpse of assistant coach Ray Lewington’s team sheet, which seemed to show the names of the starting lineup for England. Wayne Rooney was deep in midfield alongside Tottenham man Dele Alli, away from his accustomed attacking position. Perhaps, the team sheet leak was by design. Hodgson, a pragmatist with coaching stops in seven countries over 40 years, knows the value, but also the fragility of Rooney. If he could calm the debate over Rooney’s role, maybe he could help insulate him.
When Hodgson was named the England manager in 2012, he took Rooney aside and told him, "the past is the past." He then named Rooney the captain when Steven Gerrard retired from international football in 2014.
"The spirit now and the chemistry, with him as captain, is absolutely incredible," former England fullback Gary Neville told BBC’s Lineker.
Rooney though, throughout the qualifying campaign for this summer’s Euros, had become consumed with chasing a legend. Needing 50 England goals to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s scoring record, he notched number 49 against San Marino on Sept. 5, 2015. In a BBC documentary that aired this year, Charlton, now 78 years old, stood alongside Rooney and told him, "It’s going to be great when you actually do it." Charlton, dressed in an immaculate grey suit, looked regal and confident. Rooney though, couldn’t meet his eyes. He looked down and his face turned red, then he muttered a few mostly indecipherable words. He was a boy again in the presence of the man — the hero of ’66 — he’s been chasing his entire career and never been able to catch.
Three days later he broke the record against Switzerland, the same team against whom he was introduced to the world 11 years earlier. His teammates applauded him as he entered the locker room. The record was now his, but it still felt mostly empty.
Without a World Cup trophy or a Euro title, it’s safe to say his career has been something of a disappointment. Rooney never asked to be in charge of a nation’s sporting happiness, but this is the price that a once-in-a-generation talent pays. His skills, and his success and failures, are for the benefit of all.
As he takes the field on Saturday against Russia, King Rooney knows that his reign is in its dying days. He’ll have one last chance to lead his troops and chase away the ghosts of ’66. Or, follow the path of disappointment taken by so many England prodigies before him.