Rooney has the game to win a Ballon d'Or

AP

Rooney has done well for himself so far, staying away from drugs, unlike Gazza. But to go any further, he needs all the support and not brickbats, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Sporting greats are like immediate family — you may not like or agree with all their actions, always, but you still end up loving them, somewhere deep down. Over the years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to extend your unstinting support to some of these sportsmen as the list of their misdemeanours keeps increasing.

Almost all the lovable sons, and in some cases even daughters, have been caught in one wicked web or the other. Diego Maradona had his addiction to cocaine, George Best and Alex Higgins had their troubles with wine and women; Tiger Woods, too, was caught cheating. A serious compilation of such player misdemeanours will take up all 40 pages of this magazine.

So stepping aside, we look at the latest victim caught by the prying eyes of the tabloids, Wayne Rooney.

Now, the lad from the poor Croxteth neighbourhood of Liverpool is no stranger to Page 3. His love (or lust) for a 48-year-old “The Auld Slapper” during his rookie days at Everton is all too well documented. But then, in his defence you could say that he was not married to one lovely Coleen McLoughlin and wasn't the father of a 10-month-old son, Kai.

Despite his rash, abrasive nature and an irksome tendency to rub the hypocritical English yellow Press the wrong way, the 24-year-old Manchester United forward is and will be by a long stretch the golden boy of English football for quite some time to come. He has gleefully taken over the ball, and like Gazza, Owen and Beckham before him, the hopes of a success-starved English nation unsympathetically rest on his broad shoulders.

The English fans and the country's overzealous Press, had pinned their faith on his immense talent to work miracles in South Africa. They even predicted his elevation as the “rightful” Ballon d'Or winner for 2010. But a few months later, and after yet another miserable excursion at the biggest tournament of the game, the very same pundits are now slitting his throat, adding him to the long list of English prodigies who never quite made it past the initial billing, falling victim to a heady mix of fame and money and an easily available self-destruct button.

Paul ‘Gaza' Gascoigne, much like Rooney, came in like a great revolution to an otherwise static English game in 1984, playing for Newcastle United. He was a great success in his first major international appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where England made it to the semifinals (the country's best performance since winning the trophy at home in 1966).

Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson pats Wayne Rooney. "All the great strikers, Denis Law, John Charles, had that courage to be in there (the penalty area), get the battering, take the hits, score the goals, be in the right place, at the right time. There's more there, more to be developed, and I know he (Rooney) can do that," says Ferguson about Rooney.-AP

Comparisons with Gazza were quite natural as Rooney took Euro 2004 by storm and scored a hat-trick on his Manchester United debut. His class was never in doubt, but his constant peaks and troughs of form were always worrying.

His opening goal in a 3-1 win over Bulgaria on September 7 this year in a European Cup qualifier was his first in a competitive match (either for England or Manchester United) since March 30. He was far from his best.

Rooney at his finest understands completely the game's fluid geometry. He carries the entire picture of the field in his head, which then plays out the frames ahead of real action. With his endless imagination, dynamism and immaculate touch, Rooney's every move bristles with dangerous intent. But that night at Basle, he was still wary of his own talent, looking nervous on the ball, his first touch betraying inhibitions, and Theo Walcott and Glen Johnson had to come to his aid, to enable him to end a long barren spell. As Johnson pulled his delivery back across the goalmouth, Walcott and Defoe sold a dummy and took the defenders with them to allow Rooney the time and space to race in and knock the ball home.

But such sudden and at times long goal droughts have not been new to Rooney's career. During the first half of the 2006–07 season, he went without scoring for 10 games but came back strongly, scoring a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers.

Even towards the middle of the Premier League season last year, Rooney was going through another of his lean spells and though he was scoring with the odd tap-ins, he was far from his natural predatory self and murmurs were running thick and fast, about him missing Cristiano Ronaldo who had just left for Real Madrid. It was quickly signalled that Rooney couldn't mount the goal-scoring saddle alone as Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov showed no signs of adapting to his new surroundings at Old Trafford.

But no sooner had the four goals come against Hull at the turn of the year followed by another brilliant run against Arsenal and a match-winner in San Siro against AC Milan than the cult of Rooney was reignited with all its madness and fanfare. But inevitably a blip followed as he suffered an ankle injury during a Champions League quarterfinal encounter against Bayern Munich, and talks of burnouts took over again.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who kept Rooney out of a clash against his first club Everton recently and who sees and works with him at close quarters is still waiting to certify him as one of his many finishers of the highest quality. “Solskjaer and Andy Cole and Rudd van Nistelrooy are far ahead. If he (Rooney) got to that level, he'd be the best in the world,” Ferguson said, earlier this year, after Rooney had one of his best seasons, scoring 26 times in 32 games during the 2009-10 EPL season.

“All the great strikers, Denis Law, John Charles, had that courage to be in there (the penalty area), get the battering, take the hits, score the goals, be in the right place, at the right time. There's more there, more to be developed, and I know he (Rooney) can do that,” Ferguson said, truly understanding the talent he has at his disposal.

That to everybody should be the crux of the matter; Rooney is still not the best player in the world, or even the best forward or the greatest English player ever. But he definitely has the game and also the correct foundation to win a Ballon d'Or eventually. But to reach great heights you need more consistency and also an uncanny knack of putting your best foot forward in the most important games. But Rooney's two Champions League final appearances so far have been nothing but subdued and so have been both his FA Cup finals. And then there is the disappointing World Cup story, where he hasn't scored in two editions.

Rooney has done well for himself so far, staying away from drugs, unlike Gazza. But to go any further, he needs all the support and not brickbats.