Tommy Martin: We didn't just remember the name. We loaded Wayne Rooney with expectations

When news came through about Wayne Rooney’s retirement you didn’t know whether to lament your own lost youth or his, writes Tommy Martin
Tommy Martin: We didn't just remember the name. We loaded Wayne Rooney with expectations

Derby County manager Wayne Rooney's low key retirement from playing was in stark contrast to how he exploded onto the scene with a spectacular goal for Everton against Arsenal. Picture: Nigel French

When news came through about Wayne Rooney’s retirement you didn’t know whether to lament your own lost youth or his.

As endings to storied careers go, Rooney’s was low key, as if to balance out the white heat of how it started. There were no laps of honour or tearful farewells. Buried within a press release announcing his new life as Derby County manager, Rooney the player finished as an afterthought.

Rooney’s playing career fell into the category of big things from the noughties you thought had ended a long time ago, like Nokia phones or Westlife. The long, slow fade-out that began in the last days of Ferguson-era Manchester United echoed in empty contrast with the tumult of his early years.

Still, his retirement was one of those reminders of the passing of time that become increasingly frequent as you get older. For all he achieved and all the headlines he inhabited in the years that followed, he will always in some way be frozen in our imaginations as the 16-year-old bull-child that raged into our lives that long ago afternoon in 2002.

"Remember the name" was the instruction when Rooney thumped the ball past David Seaman. He already had a couple of goals in a League Cup tie against Wrexham to his name, but his first in what was then called the Premiership was the shot heard round the world.

The kid seemed to be in a hurry to get on with doing the things that people had long been saying he would do. Playing five years ahead of his age grade for Everton youths, he brought the same impatience onto the pitch at Goodison Park that day. It was symbolic that it was Seaman who lay vanquished, one of the last remaining pillars of English football’s mediaeval past crumpled at the feet of the new Super Sunday boy king.

Remember the name? We would do much more than that. We would celebrate the name and we would savage it; we would load it with judgements and expectations, use it to inhabit our anxieties about fame and wealth and society.

In England, they would watch him become the national team’s top goalscorer but they would never truly love him. They crowned him their chav prince and poked and prodded at his private life for sport. He didn’t win them the World Cup like he was supposed to. He was a symbol of a world gone wrong, his failings sneered at more than his many successes were cherished.

The rest of us would wonder if he had fulfilled his potential, this man who would win the Champions League and five Premier League titles, so transfixed were we by the raucous stampede of his early years, that comic book character barrelling through world football, his naked aggression frightening and magnetic at the same time.

So there was melancholy when it all ended, in the sidebar of a struggling Championship club’s managerial muddle. Maybe a recognition that life for all of us is an inevitable comedown, a descent from youth’s screamers against Arsenal to the Derby County press release of middle age.

As often happens, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher found the right note on Monday Night Football.

Neville’s adjudication of Rooney as the best centre-forward in his time with Manchester United felt a fitting reclamation of the name from all that had been piled upon it.

Carragher spoke of his pride at seeing a fellow graduate of Liverpool’s tougher districts doing well before zeroing in on the distorting qualities of youthful promise.

But Rooney has never had any need for revisionism. It has been a pleasant feature of his recent public profile that he seems perfectly at ease with himself and his surroundings and the whole contested history of his football life.

There was the BBC documentary from 2015 in which Gary Lineker spent time at home with the Rooneys. Admittedly a puff-piece, it was hard not to be taken with the sweet heart of his family life, even when acquainted with the lurid headlines that greeted his off-field misdemeanours.

He came across as thoughtful and grounded, proud of his background in working class Croxteth. He revealed that he used to write Coleen love poems and their first date was to the pictures to see Austin Powers. His house was a big playground, full of bouncy castles for his identikit boys to bound around in and footballs everywhere.

Then came a series of impressive columns in the Sunday Times, notable for their intelligence and perception about the game and beyond. There is one from last April headlined ‘The art of scoring – even if (like me) you’re not a natural’ which is not only the most complete treatise on goalscoring you are likely to read, but also a portrait of an obsession with his craft at odds with the booze-and-fags-and-blondes tabloid image.

By far the most shameful misconception about Rooney was that he was thick. He has a tattoo that reads ‘Just Enough Education To Perform’ – it’s a Stereophonics album title but also an ironic comment on public perceptions about him and people like him.

The shyness and inarticulacy of his youth were standard for a boy from his background, but were misread in the moral panic about football thrusting riches into the hands of the undeserving poor.

His mistakes were seized on as evidence of degeneracy, as if no Oxbridge-educated captain of industry had ever stepped out of line of a weekend. They tried to make him the next Gazza, but he remained his own man.

As he prepared for the afterlife of management, Rooney wrote that as a player he didn’t enjoy the centre-forward position because it required you to stay detached from the fray, waiting for the moment to pounce. For him the game was everything, to be lost in it, charging around in the middle of it all.

So maybe the memory of the teenage tearaway firing past Seaman is the right one, because for all that the name came to mean for other people, he never forgot who he was.

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