And yet, Everton’s willingness to commit millions to restoring him to the fold has been characterized, at best, as a decision made with the heart rather than the head. At worst, it is seen as an expensive indulgence, a costly misstep, where Rooney’s presence is to Everton’s detriment and his absence to Manchester United’s considerable benefit. In part, of course, that is soccer, and sports generally: unforgiving, relentless, pathologically averse to sentimentality. The past does not provide credit for the future.
Rooney has faded, of course, and fast; there is a reason José Mourinho spent much of last year slowly easing him out of his team. Time has taken its toll on Rooney more quickly, more cruelly than it has or will on others. His rapid descent was foreseen. He always had the look, the body, of a player who would burn brilliantly but briefly.
His greatness lay in his power, his dynamism, his explosiveness; over these last two, three, four years, all have visibly diminished. Rooney is not today, and will not be tomorrow, what he was yesterday.
There is something else at play, too, though, something perhaps unique to Rooney himself: a readiness, if not quite a glee, to write him off at the first available opportunity, to believe that there will be no final hurrah, no last swan song, no Indian summer. It is a trend that has its roots in what he was, who he is and where he came from.
It was at the 2004 European Championship that Rooney announced himself to the world. By that stage, he had already been regarded as English soccer’s ascendant star for almost two years, ever since his last-minute winning goal in a game against Arsenal had moved Arsène Wenger to describe him as the “best player under 20” he had seen in his time in England.
He was still some way from that milestone age when he arrived in Portugal for Euro 2004. He was only 18 as he swept through the early stages of the tournament, prompting Steven Gerrard to describe him as “the best player in Europe” on current form.
His injury, in a quarterfinal loss to Portugal, was seen as the turning point of that game and, ultimately, England’s campaign, but his overall contribution had already been enough to persuade Sven-Goran Eriksson, England’s manager at the time, to compare Rooney’s impact to that of Pelé, for Brazil, in the 1958 World Cup.
The parallel summed up a broader mood: In Rooney, at last, England thought it had a player who would eventually stand up in comparison with soccer’s true greats. The belief stuck. In the years to come, Manchester United’s fans would coin a song in his honor, one in which he was described (admittedly not entirely seriously) as the “white Pelé.”
The comparison, and the expectation that inspired it, have haunted Rooney ever since. Whatever he has achieved, whatever he has become — his club and his country’s highest goal-scorer, a serial winner, a global icon — he has not quite lived up to the billing he was given as a teenager.
By any measure, Rooney has been an astonishing success at Manchester United. Yet because he never quite became England’s Pelé — and because, by extension, England never became Pelé’s Brazil — there are those who judge him as having failed to fulfill his potential.
He was not the player who turned England into a major international force. He, like the rest of the country’s much-vaunted golden generation, endured disappointment after disappointment at various World Cups and European Championships. What he did become was overshadowed by what he did not; who he was, in the end, was dismissed because of what he was supposed to have been.
That is not true of the massed ranks of United loyalists, of course, and nor for some time has it been true of the vast majority of Evertonians. For many years after the boyhood fan departed the club, the merest glimpse of him would prompt an outpouring of bile, but in recent times, there has been something of a rapprochement. In 2015, Rooney appeared in an Everton jersey during a testimonial game for his former teammate, Duncan Ferguson. He was given a standing ovation. A year later, he invited Everton to take part in his own testimonial at Old Trafford.
But outside those bubbles, it is Rooney’s shortcomings for his nation that have lodged in the collective psyche, among the English soccer public at large and — crucially — the general public beyond that.
Rooney, from the moment he emerged, almost fully formed, as a 16-year-old, has received as much scrutiny from the front pages of the news media as the sports sections, more than any English player since David Beckham. He is as much a celebrity as he is an athlete, exposed to a spotlight possessed of a much harsher glare.
That he is not perceived to have aged as gracefully as Beckham, slowly attaining national treasure status, is worth examining. Beckham’s looks helped him, of course, along with his style and his cool and his apparent inability to put a foot wrong in the building of his brand.
And at times, Rooney has not helped himself: the tawdry youthful indiscretions, the unseemly contract brinkmanship, the occasional on-field outburst at his own supporters, as at the 2010 World Cup.
But much of the scorn he has attracted — and that has, unfairly, slowly eroded his status — had its roots somewhere else: in his roots. England is a country hidebound by class, trapped in a web of nuance and presumption. Beckham, like Rooney, was born of working-class stock, but his was the right kind: aspirational, smiling, petit bourgeois, of the affluent South East.
Rooney was different. Where Beckham was of the suburbs close to the capital, Rooney came from the housing projects not just in the north, but in Liverpool, a city that takes great pride in standing apart from the rest of the country.
He is bright and pleasant — and, increasingly, searingly frank — in person, but in his early interviews, he was crushingly shy. It created an unfair stereotype to fit an unspoken prejudice: the thick kid from Croxteth, brains in his feet and nowhere else.
Like Beckham, Rooney never delivered glory for his country. Like Beckham, he has been criticized and condemned, fiercely, for long stretches of his career. But unlike Rooney, Beckham was never sneered at for his fame and his fortune. Somehow, he was perceived as deserving his wealth in a way that Rooney was not.
That Rooney endured all that and still achieved all he has is to his immense credit. He returns to Everton a record-breaker and a history-maker, one of the most decorated players of his generation. If the move is a little nostalgic, perhaps that is no bad thing. Rooney deserves the chance to be missed a little, before he is gone.
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