Child stars do not have it easy; navigating a route through formative years is hard enough without the aggravating factors of talent, wealth and fame. Then, in adulthood, they must remain young in perpetuity, reassuring normal folk that they are too.
For those whose fame is in the arts, there at least exists the possibility of evolving through a lifetime, or of quietly disappearing, frozen in highlights. But sport is different: the passage of time is rarely gentle and never subtle, decline visible and quantifiable. Spectators are trained to detect any sign of weakness, all the more so when watching football, so entwined with so many lives such that the two are indivisible.
This is a modern phenomenon. George Best was a public figure, but the only people who watched him play were those who went to watch him play; Wayne Rooney is a public figure, but the only people who watch him play are those who go to watch him play, or have access to the internet.
Rooney was 16 when he made his league debut, younger than Best and also younger than Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, his more immediate predecessors. But where those four were pin-ups, his was a more homely mien: the first kid in the group to hit puberty, accorded the awesome responsibility of getting the cigarettes and beers in.
In October 2002, his Everton took on Arsenal, defending champions and unbeaten in 30 games. With the teams locked at 1-1, he was sent on for the final 10 minutes, and with just seconds remaining plucked a loose ball out of the air, turned, pondered, and pasted home the winner. It was a goal of perspicacity and audacity, of aptitude and attitude, of immediacy and eternity.
Not just a talent but a player, though Rooney’s physical, technical and cerebral gifts were prodigious, his defining feature was an aggressive abandon that enveloped games and made them subservient to him; you might call it genius. He played how we’d all like to play; he played how we’d all like to live.
Quickly, he was picked for England, and by June 2004 was dominating the European Championships – and then he got injured. In the event, the competition was won by Greece, 150/1 outsiders.
Later that summer Rooney signed for Manchester United, where he has won five leagues and one Champions League. But, though he was always key to the ensemble, it was only when Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2009 that he became its front man, and as the following season reached its denouement United were well-placed to win a fourth consecutive league and another Champions League – and then he got injured. Which is to say that twice has he carried his team to the brink of something historic, and twice has misfortune intervened.
Rooney was a different player after the summer of 2010, rushing back for both club and country and paying for it. And when he and England made a mess of the World Cup, focus switched from his successes to his failings and he was deemed a disappointment, merely brilliant after promising to be epochal.
Since 2012 Rooney has been unreliable at best, regularly outrun and out-muscled by those he would once have marmalised. More importantly, his touch is unfathomably inconsistent, so, though he continues to deliver occasional inspiration, it is a long time since he played well; he is not out of form.
Nevertheless, with the exception of Alex Ferguson, managers have continued picking him, simply hiding him deeper and deeper on the pitch. This is due in significant part to his status as a respected captain, but despite the British obsession with “passion” and “character” as characterised by belligerence and hijinks, in any sport, the essential aspect of leadership is consistent excellence. Rooney is no longer capable of that standard, and increasingly has been holding his team-mates back, the precise opposite of his purpose.
Though he was largely ineffectual in the opening games of the season, after United suffered consecutive league defeats he was again indulged, restored to centre-forward and invited to punish Northampton Town of League One. Yet he could not, instead shown up by various others such as to make his position untenable. So José Mourinho dropped him and has been duly rewarded with his team’s most coherent performances of the season; Gareth Southgate will hope for similar effect when England meet Slovenia tonight. Suddenly it has become more of an aggravation to leave him in than leave him out.
Such plight has been greeted with no little glee, and fair enough — joy in the misfortune of others is part of football’s beauty. It is, though, also worth contemplating what it means to say that Wayne Rooney, the embodiment of youthfulness, is past it. We may think that we are laughing at him, but the reality is that we are laughing at ourselves, and so is he.
Daniel Harris is a writer and the author of two books on Manchester United