English football misused its unlikely gift from the gods

It’s been a pub quiz staple for decades: name the long running soap opera set in Manchester. And while Corrie and the crew in the Rovers Return is the correct answer, the true Mancunian drama, which has kept the city spellbound since the advent of television, has always revolved around the comings and goings at Old Trafford.

The storylines were the most sweeping and truly operatic, from the Busby Babes and Georgie Best through to the Ferguson era and the current decline and mega-wealth. And gleaming through the labyrinthine history is the legacy of Wayne Rooney; uncut diamond and the star of an eponymous documentary released on Amazon this weekend.

There’s an incidental moment early in the two hour exploration which inadvertently cracks the code for Rooney’s life. He’s at home with Coleen, his wife, and their young family. It’s a humdrum afterschool day and Rooney is drinking a cup of tea, secluded in Cheshire new-splendour. The viewer is distracted by the décor – the chance to gawk at the Rooney’s interior – but for the couple, it’s the usual rigmarole of schoolbags and snacks and the post-school restlessness of the youngsters.

“If this was me now, at his age, at seven, coming home after school, I’d be out playing football, “Rooney says, almost to himself. “I know society has changed now; kids just home from school, even on the council estates, they are on their computers, but . . . I’d be out all the time whereas here, nobody really does it.”

He’s unabashedly wistful. The childhood Rooney describes sounds tough and edgy and, for a 13-year-old, completely exhilarating. He had the freedom of Liverpool for four or five years; the freedom to get into fights, to mosh at city concerts, to drink cider with his friends, to play football from dawn to dusk, to make a bit of money by flogging the crisps and chocolate bars from his Nan’s shop – she ran a corner store operation from a caravan at the back of her house – to the others at school.

“Always full of mischief and confidence, always up to something,” is how Coleen describes Rooney as the 12-year-old she remembers buzzing about their streets in Croxteth. This is the England of the late 1990s, when ‘Asbo’ was the buzz term of the moment. Croxteth had been officially abandoned during the Thatcher decade and was an area with typical social and economic disadvantages, a vibrantly independent sense of community and, for a boy with Rooney’s exuberant spirit, the opportunity for unbeatable fun. It’s quite clear he loved the mayhem.

The abiding sense of his reminiscence is that Rooney was called away from all that playing outside, that he was having an endless lark with his mates in the city dusk when he was summoned indoors, not so much by his parents but by the other adults – by David ‘Moysey’ Moyes and Sir Alex and Sven-Göran; by the ghosts of Dixie Dean and Duncan Edwards; by tens of thousands of Everton and then Manchester United fans and then by all Englanders going back to the creators of the Domesday book; called away from the street to go and fulfill his destiny by becoming their football saviour, their deliverer of glory, the best in the world.

There had been other auditions. But Michael Owen was too injured and David Beckham deemed too vain and emotional. Rooney, sullen and cocky and with the pallor of a rave-kid, was already the fully achieved thing when he arrived at Everton academy and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

The boy wonder is 36 years old now, a bearded-and-baseball capped manager of Derby County, and finally ready to reveal something of himself since he has acquired the maturity and confidence in his articulacy to match the football talent which left a generation of fans speechless. It’s a well-told tale and the archive footage of Rooney’s moments of swoon and rage are wonderfully worked into the interviews. The pity is that Rooney didn’t push or trust himself to be more provocative and introspective on how England shaped him . . . his observations on ‘government’ are fleeting but fascinating. Why not stick it to them?

Rooney is clearly ready to speak here: the tone is confessional. But he revealed more of himself to the football writer Jonathan Northcroft – who contributes to the film – in a recent Sunday Times interview than he does in the film, recalling how he would go on two day solitary drinking binges just to escape the pressure of his life. There are a few uncomfortable scenes – the only possible word – when the couple, leaning on a kitchen island about the size of Gibraltar, discuss Rooney’s various liaisons with escorts, stories which were grist to the tabloid mills.

Coleen Rooney reflects on her decisions to forgive him and comes across as tough and bright and accepting that the public access to her private life leaves her open to suffering the dreary moral judgement and sermonising from the public and commentariat.

The documentary does deal with how Rooney and his wife, Coleen, dealt with his infidelity. Photograph: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
The documentary does deal with how Rooney and his wife, Coleen, dealt with his infidelity. Photograph: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

And there’s the sense that only now are the couple coming up for air. They started going out as young teenagers and both were ill-prepared for the nuclear impact of Rooney’s irrepressible genius with a football. It’s telling that the film lingers for a long time in those early days. And it’s understandable. James Milner and James Vaughan have both edged out Rooney as the youngest goal scorer in Premier League history. But it is hard to imagine anyone eclipsing the audacity of Rooney’s first goal for Everton: 16-years old, expression unreadable when he comes into the game with 10 minutes left to deliver a thunderbolt against Arsenal – when Arsenal were the yardstick.

It’s worth watching the edited reel of Rooney’s highlights because you could easily forget just how gloriously insolent he was then, as he smashed his way into the epicentre of world football. Gary Neville, always a spiky contributor, recalls how he first came up against Rooney when he was playing for United against Everton in a reserve game. The upstart clattered his seniors with impunity. “I knew he was a dirty little bastard” Neville says appreciatively. When Rooney began to train with the Everton first team, it took him about 10 minutes to peg himself as the best player at the club.

That goal against Arsenal was scored in October 2002. By the summer of 2004, at the European championships, Rooney says, “I thought to myself: ‘I’m the best player in the world.’”

Rooney has admitted to feeling like the best player in the world during Euro 2004. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Rooney has admitted to feeling like the best player in the world during Euro 2004. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

“I believe at that time that I was,” he tells the cameras. It’s a worthwhile argument he makes even if it’s not quite true. He had, without question, the greatest potential of any footballer in the world that summer. Over the course of just four games, he exhibited a level of skill and power and aggression that drew instant comparisons with Pele. England was besotted. It was surely only a matter of time before this bullet-headed Scouse kid, who looked nothing like Bobby Moore, would carry them all the way. Then he got injured against Portugal and was sitting in his England strip in a Lisbon hospital watching his team, his country, exiting the quarter finals – on penalties, of course.

And that’s the sting in the heart of the Rooney story. The tragedy of 2004, for Rooney, is that nothing ever quite matched the incandescence or scale of that promise. Two years later, at the World Cup, Portugal beat England in the quarter finals again – and on penalties, again. Rooney, desperately trying and failing to play through injury, was a livid, frustrated figure, sent off in that game and smashing things in the dressing room. After England went out, Sven-Göran Eriksson made a plea at the press conference which, when you think about it, is kind of shocking.

“He is the golden boy of England football. Don’t kill him. I beg you. Because you will need him.”

At the time, nobody batted an eyelid. But what a strange appeal for a manager to have to make. They didn’t kill him: it was more fun to eat him alive, over and over. By then, the Rooney storyline was a mini-industry for the tabloids; he was a guaranteed seller, whether on front page or back. And even though he became England’s record goal scorer, even though he was a sensational talent for Manchester United through all those winning seasons, he has never quite shaken off the suspicion that he has somehow betrayed the promise of his performances in the summer of 2004. The football writer Oliver Holt puts it perfectly in the film when he says that Rooney’s play in that tournament was so stellar that it’s as though it “has imprisoned the rest of his career.”

England missed out on Euro 2008 and at the World Cup in 2010, Rooney was again returning from injury and ineffective on a dismally blunted England team managed by Fabio Capello. By then, the England fans were booing and Rooney, angered after a 0-0 draw against Algeria, mouthed to the camera about how nice it was to hear the “loyal fans.” By then, the memory of Portugal 2004 was receding. The mood was fractious.

“Nah, listen, the kid was a genius,” exclaims his former team-mate Rio Ferdinand at one stage. “Didn’t get the credit he deserved. Was he too common? Does he look too much like the normal geezer on the street maybe? I dunno. He doesn’t look like a superstar, does he?”

And Ferdinand has stumbled on something relevant. You can spot most football superstars a mile off. Best and Cryuff and Zidane, Messi and Ronaldo move around the football field in a kind of celestial haze fixed on them by the fans. They had distinguishing characteristics. Best had beauty, Cruyff grace, Zidane hauteur. Rooney didn’t have that obvious stardust until he had the ball at his feet. And as his career matured, he was happy to do the yeoman’s work load, tearing through English winters as a fireball of industry, desperate to win, sometimes brilliant but never quite as joyous or carefree as he was in that first coming.

In the end, Rooney’s film confirms what anyone around to watch his career has always known; that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Only in the family-video footage do you see Rooney truly uninhibited, singing karaoke with absolute confidence, energized. In front of the camera, he is honest but cautious.

And he’s never far from hot water, with an FA case to answer now for his admission that he wore longer studs in a game against Chelsea, who were closing in on the 2006 title, leaving him so frustrated that he wanted “to hurt someone” in the game. Meantime, he is grafting and learning at Derby County, proving his managerial chops and loyalty by guiding the club through a beleaguered season and turning down an opportunity to interview for the manager’s position at Everton. He’s confident that he has the stuff to manage a top-flight club. And the extraordinary trajectory of his football life makes it inevitable that he will, sooner rather than later.

But it’s always second best to playing, the management lark. And as Wayne Rooney moves into the second half of his football life, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that English football misused it’s unlikely gift from the gods; that they never quite understood what they had on their hands.

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