The assassin-faced baby

At the base of Wayne Rooney’s formidable back is a tattoo that reads, a little obliquely, “Then”. It refers, so it is said, to a Scouse phrase that he and his friends are fond of repeating: “Okay then.”

But in years to come, it may take on another, more poignant meaning, as he looks back in the mirror of time and reflects on what it was like when he was the most celebrated Englishman in Europe.

As things stand, though, there is no time like the present for the 18-year-old wonder-kid from Liverpool. Everything about Rooney at the moment, aside from that tattoo, screams “Now”.
Having dominated the opening stages of Euro 2004 and made the England number nine shirt his own, the burly teenager has also been allocated another position that was up for grabs: that of the nation’s sporting icon.

The previous incumbent, David Beckham, the Vanity Fair cover star who remains a model man in the world of fashion, suddenly finds himself out of fashion in the world of sport. By common consent, the slick brand that is the England captain is no longer in keeping with the temper of the times.

It may have been his indifferent form on the pitch, the alleged affair with Rebecca Loos, or that tattoo-too-far on the back of his neck, but whatever the reason, flash is out and, in the pendular nature of these things, authenticity is back. After the product-selling moisturised man, we want a bit of rough.

And there is no rougher than Rooney in football, or, to put it more politely, the game nowadays boasts no more authentic figure. David Moyes, his manager at Everton, has called him “the last of the backstreet footballers”. Certainly, his jutting jawline, which seems to have been drawn by a Beano cartoonist, harks back to another age — the Neolithic perhaps. He is Roy of the Rovers with the physique of Desperate Dan.

Until remarkably recently, Rooney played kick-abouts with his mates on the streets of Croxteth, an area of Liverpool whose shopping precinct is unlikely to attract the likes of Victoria Beckham. In an era of multimillion-pound contracts, it is a little redundant to speak of working-class footballers, but while Beckham was hardly public-school material, he demonstrated an arriviste interest in changing his image that, for better or worse, is simply not apparent in Rooney.

From his thick-set frame to his get-stuck-in attitude, the lad is, well, a lad. There is more chance of him proving Riemann’s hypothesis than, for instance, wearing a sarong. His Toby-jug face is not one on which designers will rush to place their sunglasses. Indeed, one commentator has suggested that with such a visage he would be lucky to sell potatoes.

That is perhaps a tad harsh, as he carries about him a bullish appeal that could, from certain angles, be described as handsome. BBC pundit Peter Reid mentioned recently that Rooney had fooled the Croatian goalkeeper.

“He’s given him the eyes,” he said. And who could blame the poor Croat for being mesmerised, for Rooney’s eyes do indeed sparkle with an unsettling intensity.

Not that English fans are much concerned with waxing poetic about their new hero’s burning stare. They have other ideas in mind. Across the pubs of England, a chant has started up in honour of the Liverpudlian manchild: “He’s fat, he’s Scouse, he’ll rob your fucking house.”

Similarly, there is a joke image doing the rounds on the net that shows an array of stolen goods falling out of his pockets during his cartwheel celebration against Switzerland.

The jibes play, of course, on the most crude terrace stereotype, yet their significance lies less in what they accuse Rooney of — the wholly unwarranted charge of housebreaking — than what they idolise him for: the unprepossessing manner in which he has stolen our affection.

One of the most daunting responsibilities that comes with the job of the nation’s sporting icon is that whoever does it is expected to be a socio-cultural symbol of our times. Thus Beckham was Britain’s blackest white man and a heterosexual gay poster boy who feminised football. Rooney, by contrast, is not about to be mistaken as black or gay or from any other sexy minority. The minority from which he hails is one that is not even ironically cool.

In the current lingo, Rooney is a chav, that section of the working class that in the United States is unkindly referred to as “white trash”. This designation was, for the media at least, earned when Rooney’s agent threw an 18th-birthday party for his client at Aintree racetrack and invited Atomic Kitten.

It was confirmed when Rooney’s father, an unemployed labourer and former boxer, and mother, a school dinner lady, were caught up in a brawl at a party that Rooney threw for the 18th- birthday of his girlfriend, Colleen, earlier this year.

There was a photograph in the newspapers last year that showed young Rooney walking with his overweight father on a beach in Mexico. Their stance was identical and his genetic inheritance was plain to see. So it followed that Rooney junior was biologically programmed to end up a lumpen middle-aged bloke like so many of his inner-city contemporaries.

But in actual fact, Rooney has done little to deserve the chav tag.

Despite looking like the sort of bloke whose toes are to be carefully avoided in crowded bars, he has no known record of violence, and on the field, for all the talk of his temperament problems, he is a long way from being the next Vinnie Jones.

The problem Rooney now faces is that he could be, as Sven-Goran Eriksson reportedly said, the next Pele. He is without any doubt a sublimely gifted footballer — “potentially the best England player of my lifetime”, according to Gary Lineker. And in England at least, you don’t get to survive the deadening coaching system with such skill intact unless there is something wrong with you.

The big fear, then, is that Rooney will turn out to be the next Paul Gascoigne. Gazza managed to retain his youthful love of the game because, in his daft-as-a-brush persona, he had a mental defence that, alas, left him no protection from the rest of life. What is Rooney’s secret? What character flaw does he nurture that has enabled him since the age of nine to elude the flair-removing blandishments and demands of the English club game?

There are obvious similarities between Gascoigne and Rooney. Both come from the urban underclass, neither look like natural athletes, but like Gascoigne, whom Karl Miller famously dubbed “a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun”, Rooney possesses a brute grace, a physical genius, that is truly beautiful to behold.

It should be this quality for which he is known, but that is an observation that is about as realistic as calling for world peace. The level of scrutiny Rooney is now destined to receive is designed to crush all but the most resilient of talents.

The question is not whether he will be damaged by the attention — no modern English player, from Gascoigne through Michael Owen to Beckham, has escaped that fate — but how much the damage will affect him as a player and a person.

Another one of Rooney’s favourite phrases is “made up”, which is Scouse for happy. “I was made up,” he often says when asked to describe his feelings after scoring one of his imperishable goals.

Once exposed to the full inventive weaponry of the media and advertising industries, Rooney may come to employ that sentence to mean something quite different and much less cheering. But that will be then, and to the joy of England fans and Rooney himself, this is now. —

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