Looney over Rooney

AP

In keeping with the history of English sport, a whole nation expects Rooney to do what Ian Botham and Flintoff successfully did and what Paul Gascoigne so sadly failed to do in 1990 — play the superman; the larger-than-life figure who effortlessly churns reality from myth, writes N. U. Abilash.

Early this Premiership season, in August 2005, with Old Trafford bathed in glorious late-summer sunshine, Manchester United hosted mid-table aspirants Aston Villa. As expected, it was an easy game for the hosts — the 1-0 scoreline not being an adequate reflection of the dominance exerted by the marauding duo of Wayne Rooney, 19, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 20.

Exactly 10 years ago, when Villa had hosted United in the same competition, United had lost 3-1 with David Beckham, 20, scoring his first ever goal. After the match, the former Liverpool and Scotland defender turned television expert Alan Hansen had said of United's remaining season: "You win nothing major with kids." Come July 2006, Rooney's exploits in Germany might well ensure the beatification of Hansen's great piece of nonsensical punditry.

Of course, England would be hoping for the success of its `Promised Boy' with greater things in mind than just proving a former Scottish international wrong: a World Cup win in the land of its great football rivals would be a nice way to move forward 40 years from that mythical year, 1966. A slightly older Lancashire lad, Andrew Flintoff, showed the way for the country's superstar footballers last summer when he helped English cricket to jump off the 1981 bandwagon into the glorious `now'. Rooney, and England, would be hoping that the similarities with Flintoff are not restricted to the Lancashire working class origins, the awesome physicality that has floored Essex girls, the beer-guzzling and, of course, the all-round nature of their on-field excellence.

In keeping with the history of English sport, a whole nation would expect Rooney to do what Ian Botham and Flintoff successfully did and what Paul Gascoigne so sadly failed to do in 1990 — play the superman; the larger-than-life figure who effortlessly churns reality from myth. The power, vitality and the full throttle of the working class youth — which ironically is being labelled as dangerous and anti-social by Tony Blair and Co. — in Rooney can definitely carry England the full distance in Germany. As can his skills, technique and imagination.

If sceptics doubt the ability of Rooney to carry England on his shoulders in Germany, all they need to do is watch the video footage of the Manchester United-Arsenal Premiership match at Old Trafford earlier this month. Seeing his midfielders struggle initially against Cesc Fabregas and Gilberto Silva, Rooney dropped back to bail them out. Once he helped United achieve parity in the midfield, he was at the forefront of the club's every attacking move. In the second half, he controlled a beautiful Mikael Silvestere cross with a graceful touch and thundered his shot past Arsenal's German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. A few minutes later, he burst down the right wing, balanced himself and controlled the ball perfectly after being tackled and crossed for Park Ji-Sung to score United's second goal. The match encapsulates what the 20-year-old can do in a big game against quality opposition. Small wonder that the 1966 World Cup hero Martin Peters likened him to the young Pele of 1958 after his heroics in Euro 2004. England looked dangerous and clear winners — with striker partner Owen left unmarked thanks to the unequivocal attention Rooney was getting from the Portugal midfield and defence — till the 27th minute of the quarterfinal, when Rooney limped out of the tournament with a broken metatarsal bone.

The Arsenal match also witnessed a new facet of Rooney; mental composure in the wake of refereeing decisions going against him and his team. In the first half, he rounded Lehmann and let loose a blinder, which was handled by Arsenal defender Kolo Toure and diverted to crash against the post. The referee denied a clear penalty, and wonder of wonders, Rooney just bit his teeth and went on with business instead of imploding. The striker was clearly frustrated with his poor performance in the next match against Sunderland; yet there was a newfound maturity and focus, which augurs well for England in Germany.

Crucially, the Arsenal and Sunderland matches came right in the middle of yet another tabloid hounding of his personal life, which is the second most written about in the country after that of skipper Beckham. It was alleged that his gambling spree in five months late last year had seen him run up debts of GBP700,000 to one of Michael Owen's business partners. The newspapers alleged that there was a cold war between England's two frontline strikers, which was rubbished by Owen, Rooney and his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who memorably compared the media attention on Rooney to three other former United legends, George Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham.

The young England striker had a moral victory during the same period; he accepted GBP100,000 in damages from the publishers of two leading British tabloids who falsely claimed last April that Rooney had subjected his fianc�e Colleen McLoughlin to a violent assault. Rooney, however, will still have to be a witness in a case by a 50-year-old former massage parlour worker against British tabloid The Sun, which in August 2004 had called her a prostitute who had sex with Rooney. At the time, Rooney had issued a statement saying that he had indeed visited massage parlours and prostitutes. "It was at a time when I was very young and immature and before I had settled down with Colleen," he had said.

Clearly, Rooney has travelled much more on the growing-up path than in 2004 and even in late 2005, when he was sent off from Manchester United's Champions League match against Villarreal for sarcastically applauding the referee after receiving a yellow card. He also let out steam on the field against skipper Beckham in the disastrous World Cup qualifier against minnows Northern Ireland, frustrated at Sven-Goran Eriksson's new pyramid formation in the midfield.

The year 2006 has seen a drastic reduction in the number of cards and displays of on-field petulance and frustration. The period has added another dimension to his personality; adaptation to celebrity life. When asked after the Arsenal game whether the tabloid reports had affected him, he quipped: "You saw me out there, make your mind up."

In addition to his stable relationship with Colleen, another major motivation for `growing up' could well be the recent shifting of goalposts in the definition of youth in English football caused by the signing of the hot 16-year-old striker Theo Walcott — a distant relative of former West Indian batsman Clyde Walcott — by Arsenal in January for an initial GBP 5m, which could increase to GBP12m. At a time when football is a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks largely to television, anybody slightly old will have to reinvent himself to be in the corporate forefront, and Rooney is no exception.

Rooney, who is the third most marketed person in contemporary football after Beckham and Ronaldinho, has done well to temper the rugged masculine `big boy' image with the tinge of responsibility that promises to grow in the coming years. In the absence of skipper Beckham's projection of the image of the `Metrosexual' man, which lends itself easily to a corporate windfall, Rooney has always been marketed along populist lines. "Unlike Beckham, he won't ever be preoccupied with fickle fashions or the latest tattoos — he is an amazingly talented street footballer with the power of youth who can appeal to kids and young-at-hearts all over the world," said his agent Paul Stretford, after his Euro 2004. Small wonder kids and youngsters from Hampstead to Hanoi go looney about Rooney.

Germany might well see the beginning of a new Rooney — the sheer physical power, creativity and exuberance of youth married to the awareness of being in a collective struggle to create a new modern reference point for a great footballing nation sadly caught in a time warp. "The signs are encouraging," as England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson famously said when Rooney burst onto the nation's collective consciousness in October 2002 with a spectacular last-minute winner for Everton against champions Arsenal ending their unbeaten Premiership run of 30 matches.

Whether he is `growing up' or not, let it be said that England expects a 20-year-old youngster brought up in an inner-city in Liverpool to win for it the biggest prize in the world of sport if not in Germany at least in South Africa.

ROONEY ROADMAP

October 1985: Born in an inner-city area of Liverpool to working class parents.

August 2002: Premiership debut for Everton against Tottenham Hotspur.

October 2002: First Premiership goal, a winner against Arsenal in the last minute, ending the then Premiership champions' 30-match unbeaten streak in the competition.

February 2003: England debut against Australia at Upton Park, London, in a `friendly'. Becomes the youngest ever debutant for England; Australia won the match 3-1, the country's first ever win over sporting rivals England in football.

September 2003: First goal for England against Macedonia in a Euro 2004 Qualifier — the youngest ever England scorer.

June 2004: The star and top-scorer of Euro 2004, with two strikes each in the group games against Switzerland and Croatia; fractures metatarsal bone during the quarterfinal against Portugal, which England lost in the shoot-out.

August 2004: GBP27m transfer from Everton to Manchester United.

September 2004: Fairytale debut for the `Red Devils', scoring a hat-trick against the Turkish side Fenerbahce in the Champions League match — United won 6-2 with Rooney figuring in an assist as well.

September 2005: Hurls abuses at skipper Beckham on the field in the disastrous World Cup Qualifier against Northern Ireland; a week later he is sent off for sarcastically applauding the referee after receiving a yellow card during Manchester United's Champions League match against Villarreal.

March 2006: Wins his first professional winners medal, the League Cup, when Manchester United defeated Wigan 4-0 in the final at Cardiff — Rooney scored two goals and was declared Man of the Match; Signs the largest sports book deal in publishing history with HarperCollins — Rooney is to receive GBP5m in advance for a minimum of five books to be published over 12 years. The first book, an autobiography, will be published after the 2006 World Cup.

April 2006: Newspaper allegations that he went on a betting spree late in 2005 which resulted in a GBP700,000 debt to one of Michael Owen's business partners.