The first time I learned of Wayne Rooney’s talents was a 2002 FA Youth Cup quarterfinal under the floodlights at Goodison Park when I was playing for Nottingham Forest.
It won’t surprise you that Everton’s 16-year-old prodigy was startlingly good that night, rattling the goal frame with a string of efforts from outside the box, before scoring a bicycle kick from a corner to seal a 2-1 win for them.
In the away changing room afterwards, our manager, John Pemberton, told us not to be too downhearted because the young man who had been the difference between the two teams was “the next Alan Shearer.” A few months later, Rooney announced himself to the Premier League with that defining goal against Arsenal, and we realised our manager was right.
That encounter, almost 15 years ago now, seems so stark in contrast to the Wayne Rooney we see playing now. His sheer physical force, at 16 years of age, was devastating. As a defender two years his senior, 6-foot-1 and quite capable of handling a physical challenge, on more than one occasion I was swept aside like a little boy.
Rooney would hold me at arm’s length, swivel, and tear away with a bullish dynamism I don’t think I ever encountered again. Just a few months later he was doing the same to seasoned Premier League defenders. Sadly, though, that can no longer be said today.
As it becomes clear that your body doesn’t function in the way it used to, rancour grows with the realisation that you can no longer perform in quite the same way. However, the 30-year-old’s decline has as much to do with the world around him as the ageing of his worn and weary legs.
Although it was the Football League rather than the Premier League I played in, our careers ran across much the same passage of time. The early 2000s ushered in a seismic change in football: beers after a match were replaced by recovery drinks; pizzas with protein shakes, sport science grew in value and the culture shift followed a realisation that peak physical conditioning was becoming more and more vital every season. The speed and athleticism in football transformed more during that time than in any other period of the game’s history.
I started out as a young, athletic full-back who fancied my chances in a race with most players. But as the years passed, footballers became quicker and stronger. In the same period, Rooney went from being a player who could brush off and bustle past defenders with ease, to finding more muscular and powerful opponents blocking his path. His stocky frame will always be a far cry from the lean, wiry build that most top players exhibit today.
Combine that with years of a daily pounding of his body and its joints, and you see why the change in the Manchester United striker’s play is so striking.
Waking up with perpetual aches and pains makes you long for the days when you were young again. Days when you didn’t know what it was to feel that crunch in your ankles, knees or hips; days before you had to arrive early for training every morning to warm yourself up for the warm-up; days when you didn’t even know what cartilage was — the stuff that feels so worn that each step feels like bone grinding bone under the weight of your body.
Injuries only quicken the decline and Rooney has endured lengthy lay-offs after metatarsal and ankle ligament injuries. I suffered a broken leg and a ruptured Achilles tendon, as well as the pulls, strains and knocks that are commonplace for every footballer. The truth is, every injury and lay-off has an effect. One may be imperceptible, but the cumulative effect gradually dampens the spring in your step, curdles the fluidity and explosiveness of your stride, stiffens and tightens your muscles and disturbs the connection between the speed of your thought and the movement of your feet.
It’s hard to accept. You fight it. Put it down to that pain in your ankle or the twinge in your groin. Put in extra hours in the gym or on the training pitch so the sharpness that has dwindled might return. But in reality, it’s just part of the inevitable decline.
So what can be done? Change your game. There were spells towards the end of my career when I happily moved to centre-back. Reading the game and organising those around me became far more comfortable than those races with fleet-footed wingers I once enjoyed.
That is why we see Rooney dropping deep, playing the orchestrator in midfield rather than the runner up front. He knows deep down that he can’t affect the game as a striker in the way he once did. You either have to learn to play your position differently, or change it. Rooney clearly wants to play in midfield, but your manager won’t always accommodate your wishes.
Jose Mourinho has stated — foolishly, it now appears — that Rooney won’t play as a midfielder in his Manchester United team. Yet as he drops deeper in every game that leaves him in limbo: without a definable role in a sport that has evolved dramatically as he has aged.
Rooney is deserving of a respect to match that of any footballer in this country, and it would be foolish to write him off just yet. But as he approaches his 31st birthday, England and Manchester United’s captain will know in his heart that he has to adapt if he wants to survive.