Rooney, records ... and respect

Where's the applause? Despite all the goals, Wayne Rooney divides opinion. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty)

Where's the applause? Despite all the goals, Wayne Rooney divides opinion. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty)

In the next week, it is not a wild leap of logic to imagine Wayne Rooney will move alongside Sir Bobby Charlton as England’s highest scorer, or maybe even make the honour exclusively his own. Rooney needs one to pull level with Charlton and two to go ahead with a half-century of goals, and San Marino are obliging opponents for a man with a record to chase.

Charlton has already been interviewed for the Football Association’s eulogies. His tribute is ready to go and the button will be pressed as soon as, presumably, Rooney helps himself against a team featuring the manager of a fitness centre, an olive oil-maker and a left?sided midfielder who earns his living selling lampshades.

After that, Rooney has a few other personal targets that are within reach.
That was some calling card he left in Bruges recently to move to 233 goals for Manchester United. Denis Law’s total of 237 will be next, and if Rooney is to have the kind of season that Louis van Gaal envisages and desperately needs, it could conceivably end with the striker overtaking Charlton’s 249-goal mark.

Add that to his haul of achievement – five Premier League titles, the Champions League, two League Cups and enough individual awards to fill a fleet of pantechnicons – and whatever you may think about his declining powers, or however much he intermittently disappoints us, the day will surely come when the majority of people have to accept that this constitutes authentic greatness.

Easy to imagine the disdain
Not everyone, plainly. Rooney polarises opinion like few others and already it is easy to imagine the disdain that will accompany the fact the record is likely to come at a stadium where the last European Championship qualifier attracted a crowd of 759 and there are several rows of trees, rather than stands, behind both goals, with nothing to stop people from standing in the woods for a free view.

The football history of San Marino reads: one win, four draws, 125 defeats, 17 goals scored and 530 conceded. Rooney has scored more times against this Saturday’s opponents, four, than against any other nation and, whatever the strength of Charlton’s paean, there will inevitably be those who believe the achievement is diminished when the player is topping up his figures against a team with the grand total of three points out of a possible 348 in qualifying competitions.

In total, 18 of Rooney’s goals have come against seven of the teams who are generally found by scrolling towards the last few pages of Fifa’s rankings: three against Kazakhstan and two each against Andorra, Estonia, Iceland and Belarus. Another came against Liechtenstein, the only team to play San Marino and lose, and he also has one each against Macedonia and Lithuania.

If we judge Rooney’s England career as a whole there is certainly something revealing about his response recently when he was asked to nominate his favourite three goals.

Rooney’s first choice was the one he scored against Macedonia in September 2003 to become England’s youngest-ever scorer, at the age of 17 years and 317 days. The other two were from Euro 2004, against Switzerland and Croatia, back in the days when Rooney’s precocious ability to surge past opponents, slaloming through defences with those raw, thrilling qualities, caused the kind of apprehension among opposition defences that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi now inspire.

In other words, none of Rooney’s selections have been from the past 11 years and all go back to his first 18 months in the England setup, in the days when he seemed to hold the keys to the football universe and Sven?Goran Eriksson would try to play down the hype while simultaneously predicting this would be England’s Pelé.

It was the power of his running, the way he would immediately drive forwards, no matter who was in his way, and the manner in which he backed himself every time. More fool us, perhaps, but I can distinctly remember at the time that those of us in Eriksson’s company did not think his prediction to be so outlandish as it maybe sounds now. Rooney was wonderful.

Assassin-faced baby
As it has turned out, the assassin-faced baby has not become the player English football expected him to be. He stopped taking on opponents a long while back. The snap left his legs. His pace and touch became heavier. The scoring bursts have become interspersed with listless spells when it seems misplaced to compare him with the real titans of his sport and, in the worst moments, it does appear that all the warnings came true and, approaching 30, he is suffering the sapping effects of what is known in football as burnout.

Other parts of his game – his football intelligence, his temperament and one-on-one finishing – have advanced but the electricity, that frisson of excitement that used to exist every time he had the ball, simply isn’t there any more and it isn’t coming back.

Rooney has stopped being the player who made you quicken your step on the walk to the ground. He can be caught, overtaken, restrained. There is no point dressing it up: he disappoints more than he thrills these days.

But let’s cut him some slack. Rooney is on the verge of a scoring feat that will help to distinguish whether he is remembered as a football great or merely a great footballer.

There is a difference and a player who finishes his career as the leading scorer for England and Manchester United is entitled to think he has done enough to be remembered in the highest bracket.

Perhaps it is ungrateful to have expected more and maybe, in time, nostalgia will be the file to smooth away the rough edges and he will be remembered with more affection than he regularly encounters now. Indeed, an argument could be made – and it would be an argument – that a statue of him should eventually go up outside Old Trafford, given there is already one of Charlton, George Best and Denis Law on Sir Matt Busby Way.

Best in bronze
The suggestion, one imagines, would leave many United supporters in a froth of moral indignation but, in terms of black?and?white achievement, Rooney is on course to surpass all three members of the holy trinity. Yes, he did try to desert the club a few times, with previous dalliances with Manchester City and Chelsea, but if such matters were judged on behaviour and professional standards, would Best, as fondly as he is remembered, have been immortalised in bronze?

For now, let’s just say Rooney deserves the acclaim that will come his way, assuming he avoids what happened to Gary Lineker when he was in a similar position, one behind Charlton, only to suffer what a golfer would call the yips, most notably with the penalty he harmlessly plopped into the arms of Brazil’s goalkeeper, Carlos, at the old Wembley.

San Marino are a different kind of opponent entirely but if that is to be used against Rooney let’s not forget either that Charlton’s total included five goals in two games against Luxembourg and the hat?trick he scored in 1959 against the USA.

For Rooney, there have been goals against Argentina, the Netherlands and, on two separate occasions, Brazil, including one particularly sumptuous strike on the day they reopened the Maracaña when, for this observer, the lingering memory was of how the Rio de Janeiro crowd greeted him with more enthusiasm than they could muster for any of their own players, bar Neymar.

It is just a shame, perhaps, that Rooney has reached this point where it still isn’t straightforward knowing how to think of one of the sport’s history-makers, and that it has left us in the very strange position where his performance, crazy as it sounds, can inspire both awe and disappointment. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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