Anyone whose only exposure to Wayne Rooney was watching him terrorise Croatia’s defence in the 2004 Euros will wonder only one thing about his breaking the record as England’s leading goal scorer: what took him so long?
Boy, was Rooney good back then. He had arrived fully formed into the Everton team as a 15 year old, a man child, his football brain as mature as his physique. At 18, an age when most footballers are still learning their craft, he was already unstoppable, tearing holes in the Croatian back line, his skill matched only by his audacity.
Just check out those goals he scored in Portugal that summer on YouTube. The power, the precision, the excellence: no wonder seasoned observers were predicting this could be the greatest English footballer of all time, a genuine world class talent, someone who could dominate the game for a generation.
No wonder then-England manager Sven Goran Erkisson looked so distraught when Rooney succumbed to injury in the quarter final: he knew his chance of glory had just departed the scene. No wonder Alex Ferguson had his pen poised above the cheque book, ready to make the lad the priciest teenager in history. This was something extraordinary.
Eleven years on, extraordinary is not a term often used in connection with Rooney. Watching him labour against Swansea City in his last league outing was to see a player apparently fighting against chronology. Slow in his reactions, reduced in his acceleration, his power and physicality on the wane, at 29, he looked past it.
That his record for England came through a couple of penalties struck against bang average opponents was instructive. It was a mark as much of longevity as brilliance. Hugely significant, hugely laudable, hugely deserved. But in the end, no indicator of genius.
Cristiano Ronaldo y Wayne Rooney durante un Real Madrid-Manchester
Image credit: Imago
If you had made comparison between Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who is almost his exact contemporary, in the autumn of 2004 few would have predicted their relative reputation now. Back then, both had recently been signed by Manchester United. But Rooney already looked streets ahead.
After recovering from a metatarsal injury sustained at the Euros, he scored a hat-trick on his European debut. This was a player leading the line at 18, a player to be trusted, a player ready. Ronaldo, meanwhile, took until December to score his first goal for the club, the third in a walkover win. He was a work in progress, an apprentice, at times an exasperating student.
Spin forward a decade, and it is Ronaldo who is now the undisputed great, the goal machine, the contender for every serious award. And it is Rooney who is labouring, his achievements – even his outstanding international goal haul - forever shrouded in caveats, someone no longer on anyone’s shortlist for the world’s best.
Of course he is a fantastic player, a generous colleague, a fine leader, a team man happy to play wherever on the field he is required. But the world great it was once assumed he would become? That is a distinction that can only plausibly be accorded to his one-time team-mate.
So what happened to Rooney? What was it that dulled that edge? That prevented him from becoming the genuine unimpeachable historical figure so many assumed he would?
Yes there were injuries. But in truth, they were not of the debilitating, speed-sapping, career-defining nature. Snapped metatarsals recover. He suffered none of the kind of devastations that transformed Michael Owen, Fernando Torres and Radamel Falcao from world beaters to hobbling also-rans.
Wayne Rooney celebrates after scoring the second goal for England from the penalty spot and becoming England's all time leading goalscorer
Image credit: Reuters
Yes, there was a more lackadaisical approach to training. While Ronaldo was an obsessive, spending every last second in the narcissistic pursuit of the perfect physique, forever working on his technique, Rooney was always more relaxed.
For sure he was no Mario Balotelli: when he trained he did it properly. But he was more than happy with his ability, preferring to spend his down time indulging computer games rather than honing his abs or practising his free-kicks.
And while rumours of his private life have always been wildly exaggerated, there is no question when he returned for pre-season training the United medical team frequently found evidence of indulgence. While Ronaldo would allow nothing anywhere near his body that might reduce his capability, like any sane and sensible young man Rooney liked a burger. And a beer. Plus the occasional cigarette.
As he himself has admitted, he did things that were not entirely conducive to achieving excellence. Heading off to Las Vegas while under suspension ahead of Euro 2012 was not the brightest of moves. Ronaldo would have certainly steered clear of any hint of jet lag, keeping himself primed and ready, Rooney just thought what the hell. He now regrets the trip and says if he had his time again, he would have stayed in the gym. Ronaldo would simply never have done it in the first place.
But ultimately that is peripheral stuff. For sure, Rooney was never an eager devotee of the Dave Brailsford approach of accumulation of marginal gains. But it wasn’t his off-season refuelling habits that stalled his progress to the pinnacle.
If you want a clue as to the issue with Rooney, it comes from Sir Alex Ferguson’s attitude to him. Ferguson loved Rooney, loved his fearsome nature, his bravery, his willingness to adapt. But Ferguson is also the shrewdest judge of a player, a manager ruthless in his disposal at the moment he feels a peak has been passed.
And he had diagnosed that Rooney was beyond his best as long ago as 2012. He was easing the player out of the first team, not picking him for big games, ultimately letting him know he could leave the club. If Ferguson had not himself retired in the spring of 2013, Rooney would have been let go that summer.
Because what Ferguson recognised is the ultimate issue with Rooney: he has lived to a different beat of time. At 15 he was a fully formed adult, at 19 he was at his peak, by 27 Ferguson reckoned he was already well over the hill.
Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson
Image credit: Eurosport
You can see it in the way he moves, in the swell of his hips, in the lack of acceleration. As he has aged, Ronaldo, in possession of a different body type, has been able to match physique to experience. As he gets older, Rooney knows precisely what to do. The trouble is his body is no longer as capable of doing it, nor is his mind necessarily determined to carry it out.
That he is still at United and leading the line for England is as much to do with the lack of alternative as it is a mark of his excellence.
Plus, he is a great guy to have in a dressing room, an encouraging, willing, proper team player. Someone delighted to pass on his own experience to those coming through. Even when that experience is negative: don’t do what I did.
Rooney deserves his record this week. It is a mark of his achievement, an inarguable historical statement. That he is not the undisputed great he once threatened to become cannot alter the fact he has surpassed one of the English game’s most notable landmarks. His name is in the record books, with a mark that will now take some beating.