Take the case of one of its finest players since its inception in 1992: Wayne Rooney, who turned 31 yesterday. There is little sad about his undoubted decline, as synonymous as those two words tend to be; after the week we’ve seen down in Munster, the word ‘sad’ is something we need to use a lot more sparingly about a decline or a lot else that goes on in sport. But something that this column for one has found rather uneasy about his decline is the glee some seem to have taken in it.
A few weeks ago we were listening to the Last Word on TodayFM in which its host Matt Cooper was almost indignant at the prospect of Rooney somehow starting another game for Manchester United. When he finally got his analyst Mark Lawrenson to concede that it was time United stopped picking him on the basis of past glories and that, yeah, he should be dropped, The Last Word’s anchor almost broke into a chant of Hallelujah.
For all the denial Rooney sympathisers might have been, we were puzzled by how someone would almost glory in a man’s misfortune, especially a mere footballer, even if he’s an extremely well paid one.
In wanting to grab Rooney supporters by the head and making them to see a current reality, the likes of Matt have tended to go to the other extreme of avoiding another reality themselves.
During the past summer’s Euro 2016 campaign which highlighted how Rooney was a shadow of the player he once was, Cooper tweeted: ‘Seriously, for all the talk, was Wayne Rooney ever really world class? If he had played in another league would we have noticed?’ From 2007 to 2011, Manchester United played in another league – the Champions League – and reached either its semi-final or final each of those years, bar one, in 2010, when Rooney was having probably his most outstanding season of all; had he not limped off against eventual winners Bayern Munich in the quarter-final, that would have been five consecutive years they’d have reached the last four.
To give some perspective to all this. A lot of people play sport, be it kids from under-eights on, to adults at a local, recreational level. Football is by a distance the biggest sport in the world, to the point there are two types of sportspeople on the earth: those who play football and those who participate in something else. Rugby, a sport whose internationals are revered by the likes of Matt, is relatively speaking a Lough Neagh to the Atlantic Ocean that is football in terms of the pool of sporting talent. You could say it is the most prized job in the world: to be among the best footballers in the world. In primary school, our class used to learn off an Irish essay by rote to prepare us for entrance exams, in which the opening line was “Nuair a bhí mé níos óige bhí mé ag iarraidh bheith i mó pheileadóir...” In other words, When I was younger I dreamed of being a footballer... The thrust of the essay was that even at the age of 11 or 12 we were hardened enough in the ways of the world to realise that dream was never going to happen so we’d have to settle for being a pilot or something else instead.
Wayne Rooney got to live the dream. Not just play the sport professionally but for five consecutive years be one of the three best players at one of the best four clubs in the world in the world’s biggest sport, or as was the case in 2008, the best club team in the world. By nearly anyone’s definition, that’s world class.
ome of the football he was playing in those years, only about 10 players in the last decade have operated at that height for a sustained period of time. It’s a plain and experience that most top footballers, let alone everyday people like you, me and Matt have no idea of. To belittle or reduce the achievement is to belittle ourselves.
For sure he probably did not become the player he could and should have been; this column was always wary about how the RTÉ panel of Giles, Dunphy, and Brady favoured and championed him to critique and sometimes even rubbish Ronaldo when United were routinely reaching Champions League semi-finals in the late noughties.
As hard as he worked on the pitch, often playing on the wing in big European games to accommodate other teammates, there were questions about how hard Rooney was working off it. In his second autobiography, Alex Ferguson spoke about how Rooney was just “reasonably two footed – he uses his left foot less than he could” and wasn’t committed to physical fitness and a 24-hour athlete mindset the way the other top players of his era did, which would compromise the longevity of his career. You look at how Ronaldo commits himself to the process.
Likewise a LeBron James, who puts so much time and effort into his all-round technical game and physical conditioning so as to maximise his talent and prolong his career. Not just world-class players but world-leading players. By that measure, Rooney fell somewhat short of fulfilling his full potential, even if he never had their physical and athletic capability to begin with.
But just because he did not become as brilliant or as consistent as a Messi or a Ronaldo – which he was threatening to be circa 20110-2011 – and was ultimately surpassed by the likes of a Suarez, does that mean he “wasted” his talent? No.
True, he was merely England’s leading goal scorer, and not their greatest, though he warrants being in the conversation. He was not a Christy Ring, but who in GAA derides a Michael Donnellan, whose brilliance shone for a lot shorter than Rooney’s? Just as a Donnellan will always have ’98 and 2001, so too will Rooney have 2008 and a lot more years besides.
He is not finished; he is better than he’s currently playing – but the days of being the franchise player of the world’s biggest sporting franchise are gone.
But just as he should not be beyond criticism and the tendency to rail against the hype-machine that can be the British football media is an understandable one, his decline does not deserve anyone’s scorn either. In mocking his supporters for a lack of perspective, we shouldn’t lose perspective on what he did and what he was.
For over a decade he wasn’t just better at something than any of us are at anything – but he was among the best at the very thing we would all would have wanted to be among the best at.