When Did Popular Perception of Rooney Change?

Rooney’s unveiling to the press at Pride Park got me thinking as to whether or not the popular perception of him as a footballer has somehow altered during his professional career.

Yesterday, Wayne Rooney joined Derby County on an 18-month player-coach deal which will begin in January 2020.

The move, seeing England’s record goal scorer leave MLS side DC United, progressed rapidly after Derby manager Phillip Cocu declined to deny the rumours. This in the immediate aftermath of the new boss’ first game in charge, as the Rams claimed a 2-1 victory at Huddersfield in their Monday night Championship opener.

Rooney has somewhat rediscovered himself in Washington, scoring 25 goals in 45 appearances in total, albeit in a largely inferior league, however much the MLS and its endorsers may postulate its undeniable growth.

A deal kept impeccably under wraps by Derby owner Mel Morris, we’ve scarcely had time to reflect on neither the rumour nor completion of transfer, as Monday’s noises were subsequently validated and soon after confirmed: first as Rooney arrived at Heathrow early Tuesday, then when announced as a Derby County player-coach in the early afternoon.

Rooney’s unveiling to the press at Pride Park however got me thinking as to whether or not the popular perception of him as a footballer has somehow altered during his professional career, 17 years and counting.
Indeed, this consideration was evoked by the following question from a journalist during the press conference:
“You have won 16 major trophies, England’s all-time leading goal scorer and yet here you are talking about the appetite to play in England’s second tier. Where do you still get that desire from?”
To which Rooney replied:
“That is football. It is what I have done my whole life, it is what I love and until my body says that you cannot do it no more, I will keep doing it.”

Whether, traditionally, described as a ‘street footballer’, a ‘working-class lad living his dream’ or something else of a similar distinction, the Wayne Rooney of 2002-2010 (a period incorporating his Everton breakthrough and foremost spell of Manchester United success) was roundly perceived to possess the ultimate hunger for the game. Epitomised within 2015 documentary Rooney: The Man Behind the Goals, which reveals that the Everton hero, “too young to celebrate with his teammates” (narration by Gary Lineker) after scoring the winner and his first professional goal against Arsenal, “went back to Croxteth for his second game that day”.

My main question, therefore, is do we still look at Rooney as that same young man who, above all (bar of course family commitments), wants to be out on concrete, grass or glass kicking a ball? Or has something changed? To the point that somebody may question, for whatever reason, why, having achieved what he has in the game, his enthusiasm to grace the field remains undiminished. And if so, when did the shift begin?

An uncomfortable reality within the modern game, yet one we’re pretty comfortable discussing. Speculating about it too, and the ways in which astronomical figures modify the priorities of today’s footballer (as, dually, a generalised conception and human commodity).

In regard to Rooney, it was in the Autumn of 2010 when contractually concerned reports first began to taint his conventional identity. This beginning in the August, when he told Man United chiefs that he would not be renewing his deal with the club. According to Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, the striker’s rationale for refusing to commit was insufficient ambition, though Ferguson proceeds to insinuate that “he’d been programmed [by agent Paul Stretford] in what he was trying to say”, during a meeting over the matter with Fergie. The narrative of the greedy agent and questionably represented footballer is one at the very forefront of the current transfer sphere (rearing countlessly this summer, namely surrounding Gareth Bale, agent Jonathan Barnett and the Welshman’s Chinese transfer saga). Rooney eventually signed on for five years in October 2010, with the deal netting him £180,000 a week.

The affair did not sit well with many, mostly for reasons concerning money. Not only due to his extraordinary new wage (later plunged into perspective by the extension signed in 2014), but also his rather unfounded assertions about the club’s inadequate ambition, despite three Premier League titles in four years, two Champions League finals (victorious in 2008) in three and a League Cup that year. United’s neighbours Manchester City, then two years into their Abu Dhabi financial splurge, therefore acted as leverage for Stretford, who, knowing he could cite them as potentially improved suitors for Rooney (particularly following Carlos Tevez’ move across town the previous summer), rather forced the Old Trafford side’s hand in caving to player and (perhaps more pertinently) agent demands. All whilst, on the pitch, City had yet to end their 34-year trophy drought or qualify for the Champions League. Somewhat justifying scattered belief that football had become a secondary concern of the England strikers’.

Rooney’s next contract extension, signed in February 2014 to earn him up to £300,000 a week, left people similarly unsettled. Indeed, having been embroiled in another transfer saga (this time with Chelsea being the most profoundly uttered destination) from Ferguson’s exit to the beginning of the 2013/14 season, the end result was again a hugely improved monetary package. Staying a United player allowed him to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time goalscoring record, entrenching the football-loving lad from humble beginnings’ place in English football folklore. But perhaps it’s the various transfer bluffs, which could have compromised the aforementioned achievement, that have caused people to propose a slip in footballing hunger.

Personal Life, Lifestyle and Ronaldo
Be it tabloid revelations of infidelity, or the recurrent idea that his lifestyle has been far from conducive to optimal performance and longevity (admittedly supported, intermittently, by seemingly below-par outward physical condition), public respect for Rooney has at times been hindered by some of his conduct. Bluntly, nobody likes a ‘cheat’, whilst many harbour frustrations as to how much better he could have been with such prodigious talent, had he simply looked after himself better. At which point, the inevitable Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons emerge. Unfairly in my view.

Returning to the journalist to player exchange at Pride Park yesterday, any indirect implication that Rooney’s “appetite” or “desire” might have waned can be attributed to the divergent career trajectories of himself and Ronaldo. Arguably on a parallel straight in the era before and immediately after the 2006 World Cup, Rooney, whilst advancing to become a superb player, undeniably became the inferior one out of the duo:Rooney vs Ronaldo

Credited for an unequivocal eagerness to play, willingness to line-up out of position for tactical reasons (often filling in out wide in Champions League ties) and even a tendency to ‘play angry’ (a trait numerously landing him in petulant bother early on in his career, though recognised as a sometimes regrettable by-product of Rooney’s positively fervent nature), the original conception of the forward depicts a young man who, as reiterated by himself yesterday, has spent his life playing football and intends to do so for as long as physically possible. In which case, could Ronaldo’s unwavering exploits be a factor for the perception change?

For all the recurring cliché’s uttered above about Rooney, one which rarely, if ever, features is the old stays behind after training notion. The phrase effectively follows players noted for exceptional work ethic and constant desire to better themselves. Where Ronaldo famously does not drink alcohol (one major reason being substance abuse suffered by his late Father), is fabled to tirelessly nurture his technique and (clearly) looks after his body both nutritionally and practically, Rooney could certainly have made some more bodily enhancing choices

Much, therefore, makes him a victim of once being on a par with Ronaldo. Alas, regardless of subjective judgements on levels of natural talent, nobody can indisputably argue that Rooney could ever have either genetically or applicably (via extreme, Ronaldo-esque dedication) sustain his counterpart’s achievements. Thus, at 33 (one-year Ronaldo’s junior) he finds himself, for a multitude of physiological explanations beyond his control, a world away from the Portuguese legend’s renewed Champions League and league title winning triumphs.

The bottom line here, a change of perception born out of an unfortunately premature decline as a top top-level footballer.

Beckham: A Culmination of Both the Above
As a final cross-section of the central question surrounding Rooney, David Beckham is evocative of much previously outlined in this article.

Contrastingly to Rooney’s narrative of exceptional natural ability, Beckham has been traditionally labelled as a lad just as hungry to play, but supplemented by a work ethic comparable to that of Ronaldo. Yes, the aforementioned training ground adage has indeed stuck to him. Be it crossing, set-pieces, long-range passing or maximisation of limited pace, Beckham has been noted, from stories of drills with his Father in Ridgeway Park to many additional hours spent at Carrington, to have optimised his ability through utter perseverance towards his childhood dream.

But like Rooney, intensification of fame and money appeared to conceive a myth that he had lost his edge in regard to the game. Admittedly, Sir Alex Ferguson’s substantially believable account of Beckham’s latter United years conveys diminishment of footballing focus, as he, like Rooney, has filled many tabloid columns over the years. Plus the various sponsorships stacked on top of sizable professional footballers’ wages.

Beckham, as Rooney did, won it all at Old Trafford, yet fell victim to the same change in perception, advanced, to a fair degree, by the same factors. Again unjustly, considering he played until the age of 38, tested himself in four top European leagues (as well as in the MLS) and never retired from International football. He’s also arguably, like Ronaldo, at a genetic advantage to Rooney, who, though ready to enter an extremely demanding league just a tier below the Premier League, has a lot of work to do to achieve another five years in the higher reaches as a player. Hence, perhaps the player-coach angle, due possibly, if his Derby contract is seen out, to see him bow out as a player at the age of 35.

Tuesday’s development is nothing less than enthralling, piling another layer of intrigue onto the Championship.

The question posed to Rooney at Pride Park, I must stress, was absolutely apt and very evocative. Everybody of course is different, and the enormous sums of footballing honours and economic rewards swept by Rooney over 17 years may indeed adversely affect some footballers’ appetite for the game. It was simply, however, a shock, remembering the orthodox perception of Wayne Rooney, to entertain the possibility that he would ever lose that explosive desire. I suppose as much as it has been, over the last 6 years or so, for many to watch his game slow down to the extent that it has.

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