Teen Rooney is already a man

WAYNE ROONEY is barely 17 years old and Arsenal must already be sick of him.


WAYNE ROONEY is barely 17 years old and Arsenal must already be sick of him. On his debut last year for Everton in the Premiership at Goodison Park, he beat them with an astoundingly precocious goal, a gem of ball control effrontery and powerful finish. At Highbury in March, there he was again, given what in fact was one of his rare starts in the team, embarrassing the fallible left flank of the Gunners' defence time and again, evading two defenders in the narrowest of spaces in the first half, putting over a perfect cross which could well have produced a goal.

In the second half, with his team a goal down, continuing to wander from the centre forward position to the right where he knew that he could do much damage, he took a long ball, left the left back Giovanni Van Bronckhorst — never at home in that position — behind, eluded the sadly fallible 6 foot 5 inch French centre back Pascal Cygan, and drove a low shot past the 'keeper Stuart Taylor into the far corner of the goal. That same day, he was nominated for the second time in the England squad, due to play two European qualifying matches. He had already become the youngest player to be capped for England when he came on for the second half of the recent ill-fated game against Australia at West Ham.

After the match, however, at the ensuing Press Conference, Rooney's manager. David Moyes, was, when I asked him about Rooney, inclined to sprinkle him with only faint praise. "He showed some great touches," he said, "but he also showed his age in the first half. You can see why we're trying to nurture him. He's not ready to do it week in, week out. He was still sitting behind a school desk last year. I have to do what I think is right for Everton. He has some fabulous pieces to his game but a lot that need developing, too. But you have to ask yourself, what's he going to be like when he's 25 or 26? This was his seventh start but he has missed just one Premiership game this season (suspensions apart) which is a remarkable statistic."

Moyes went on to speak of all those very young talents which had begun so well, but then had sputtered out. Fair enough, yet I would still resist his policy and analysis, still emphasise that circumstances alter cases. In a word, I'd insist that if a player be good enough then he is old enough. And Rooney is more than good enough. Both physically and tactically, he is immensely precocious. His temperament is beyond doubt. The great occasion so called holds no terrors to him, nor does the supposed quality of the opposition. He simply, confidently, even cheekily, does what he wants to do. You cannot hurry him, cannot make him nervously lay the ball off when he feels he can keep it, take on his man and probably go past him. Strategically, as we saw at Highbury, he is shrewd enough to perceive the weakness in an opposing defence and try to exploit it.

That he was suspended, having had yellow cards for foul play, may be morally deplorable, but it also demonstrates that he cannot be intimidated, that there is already a physical edge to his game, a tough, compactly built young Liverpudlian.

I felt it wrong of Moyes, even with the best will in the world, to concentrate on Rooney's first half faults; such as they were. I reminded him of that inspired moment when he somehow wriggled free of opposition on the right to put over that cross. If sometimes he may embrace the wrong option, make the odd mistake, what on earth does that matter when he is capable of doing so many things which men far older and more experienced than him cannot do? He seems to me robust both in physique and character, though when I asked Moyes whether he thought Rooney was still growing, he replied that he undoubtedly was!

One thinks of Pele, thinks of Diego Maradona. Pele was 16 years old when Brazil capped him for the first time. At 17 he was picked for the squad to contest the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. The Brazilians brought with them a psychologist whom I still well remember, a somewhat comic, mildly endearing figure with a set of ideas which had little to do with the realities of football. Speaking to him as I did, through an interpreter, I was perhaps less exercised than the team's manager, Vicente Feola, but felt that this unshaven figure, distressed because no one was sending him copies of the interview he gave, was somewhat out of his depth. Feola late in the tournament put it more strongly. "Senhor Feola is not saying that he wishes the psychologist would go to hell," said another interpreter at a Press Conference, "but he is thinking it!"

Well, this is what Professor Joao Carvalhaes had to say about Pele: "Pele is obviously infantile. He lacks the necessary fighting spirit. He is too young to feel the aggressions and respond with the proper force to make a good forward. Besides, he has not got the feeling of responsibility so necessary for team play. No, he definitely should not play."

Pele in fact did not play in Brazil's first two group games, simply because he was injured. He came into the team then against the Soviets, with Garrincha, was in devastating form, and in the next three matches, quarter-final, semi-final and Final, scored no fewer than six goals. Three of them against France in the semis, two wonderful goals in the Final against the Swedes. The first after a glorious feat of ball juggling in the midst of a packed penalty area, the next with a majestic header. So much for the psychologist.

It is still arguable that Diego Maradona should have played for Argentina in the World Cup finals of 1978 in his native country. Surprisingly Cesar Luis Menotti, the team manager, who had been his mentor, decided that he was too young and didn't put him in the squad, preferring the perfectly competent but infinitely less gifted Alonso. Argentina won the title in the end but not without difficulties, not least in the Final against the Dutch and you still wonder whether Maradona with his wonderful control, sublime left foot and infinite trickery, wouldn't have made life easier for them. At least he should surely have been in the squad.

Moyes is right: young talents do flourish and fade. Precocious stars must be carefully watched and protected, but there are those who simply do not need it. Rooney seems surely one of them. Pele and Maradona were certainly others.