The Euros, A.N. Other tournament where Wayne Rooney didn’t perform to a level expected of him, or for that matter anywhere even near it. He may not have had a spacecraft on hand to help him reach the heights of the outer stratosphere – as some might expect – but those sorts of lame excuses only fall on deaf ears. More worrying was that – in the eyes of some United fans – there was nothing eminently surprising about his lacklustre-ness, and you don’t have to put your ear too close to the concrete to pick up on the ground swelling of England fans voicing similar grumblings. But this wasn’t how it was supposed to pan out, was it? It’s apparent there’s something eating Wayne Rooney.
Pressure: sportspeople will always have to develop highly efficient cognitive mechanisms for coping with their own embodiment of it. External factors, from competition to expectation, and those of the internal world, from narcissism to nerves, all need to be dealt with in an appropriate manner (specific to the athlete) in order for them to excel. In Rooney’s instance, being in the position he is, those pressures – without doubt – must come close to being unbearably intense. However, as a top sports star, it’s something he has had to deal with exponentially as his career has progressed, so relatively speaking he’s well practiced. This degree of pressure is not unique to Rooney, but the environment his career inhabits is very particular and we can only really draw reasonable comparisons with a handful of other stars.
The general malcontent and the nothing-is-ever-good-enough attitude of the media and football fans of this country are very specific to our national identity and, not looking back very far, we can pick out Beckham and Gascoigne as examples, who, like Rooney, have felt the brunt of this far more then their 11th share of the responsibility might warrant (neither Becks or Gazza actually dealt with those pressures any more successfully than Rooney: both were involved in numerous flash points on the field and had their own very personal issues off it). You could also argue, due to the violent emergence of social media in the decade that Rooney’s career straddles, Rooney has had additional stresses to rise above. Everyone with an opinion – and those without one who just want to be seen to be having one – can make their private thoughts very public, which gives rise to more irrational and spiteful fervour.
One of the disparities between Becks and Gazza and Rooney is undoubtably that the former pair are viewed with a certain amount of affection, and although it wasn’t always the case, have been very much accepted. Time inevitably allows a period of reflection to assess a “celebrity” as a whole and although Rooney is still very much in the spotlight – so isn’t afforded that luxury – I think it’s more than that.
Some people, particularly those who view professional footballers not as human but as Other and who take great pains to embellish them with vitriol – born out of a necessity to placate their feelings in relation to their own individual shortcomings – paint Rooney as part caricature caveman, part “chav” and part spoiled brat, who much to their annoyance just happens to be not too shoddy with a football. The function of all these taunts – of which there are many more – is simple, to conveniently sweep to one side the talents to which very few can compare favourably, and keep him down here with “the rest of us”, vying for status.
First to address those labels. The term “chav” is a meaningless, lazy meme. A middle-class buzz word which allows people to pigeon hole the entire modern incarnation of the working classes. It says just as much about the people who use it than the people they are addressing. As for him being a “spoiled brat”, he is in a privileged position and there is a perception he doesn’t appreciate it, a grossly speculative and grubby assumption. Rooney as caricature caveman works on this simple axis: he’s stupid and ugly, although the “being stupid” part is rooted absolutely in the him “being ugly” part.
Those judgements are all entirely about the superficial, which idealistically speaking shouldn’t pose too much of a problem, but the reason racism is still prevalent in society is because we still haven’t learned how to look beyond something as incidental to a person’s individuality as the colour of their skin. Appearance really matters. It matters to all of us so much more than it should ever be allowed to, so why would Wayne Rooney be the exception? In case you hadn’t noticed, he had a hair transplant – not much was made of it. The way his appearance is perceived and portrayed by the public is a barrier to him being afforded the acceptance he craves – the acceptance we all crave. He’s a “celebrity”, and as such a disproportionate amount of his stock rests on the general perception of the two-dimensional face-shaped canvas resting on his neck plinth, and not his actual talent. He didn’t ask for any of that.
As a cumbersome footnote to the above: the general impression of Rooney (which I think is based heavily on the way he looks), is that he lacks intelligence. At a stretch I would accept you might be able to argue Rooney lacks a certain emotional intelligence – his on-field misdemeanours, often dovetailing with those off-field – however, his apparent relationships with team-mates, fellow professionals and the way he carries himself in interviews and press conferences suggests to me that he’s no more socially dysfunctional than you or I. He is a player who plays with his emotions very close to the surface, but I don’t personally see that as an indication he suffers from anything pathological.
The subject of his intelligence, or assumed lack of – regardless of what it’s based upon – is absolutely used as a form of cultural oppression; in the same way as the reference to his appearance is used. But that’s not the only thing eating him…
Further to the comparison, Rooney and Becks both share the enviable accolade of not only representing their country, but the biggest club side in England at the same time, and so have a comparable exposure to the pressures that that brings. However, again, I’d argue that Rooney has it much worse. Beckham had a very strong squad of players alongside him and the footballing climate was very different.
SAF has been conspicously vocal in his support of the owners recently, making very pointed comments on transfer targets (Twitter has been rife with speculation in relation to those comments, having conveniently coincided with the recent announcement of the IPO, some suggesting worse – although SAF himself has addressed those accusations as “insulting”). All of this in spite of the club admitting a few weeks ago that the financial situation may indeed begin to impact on the team. Could it be that their biggest on-field asset is the one that belies the truth?
Rooney is visibly unsettled. He doesn’t know his position on the field – yes, players are expected to be technically and tactically flexible, especially United ones. But going from out-and-out striker to central midfield in a matter of weeks and back again is a stretch even for the most staunch advocates of an interchangeable ethos. He gets frustrated with the players around him, Valencia aside (and he’s been absent through injury), we don’t have any attacking players that can stand toe-to-toe with the other top European clubs. He wants to win: obviously (as he’d no doubt say himself).
Tinkering with Rooney’s position is all about papering over the cracks. Rooney’s frustrations with the squad are founded in a lack of genuine quality. Losing the title and effectively becoming a Champions League punching bag are all inevitably rooted in the same issue; United don’t have the funds available to compete at the very highest level. Whether you believe in the strangle-hold the “market” has on football or not is irrelevant – it has one. If you can’t bankroll bringing in the best players and paying their wages – as it stands – you can get by (with the experience and savvy SAF provideth), but you don’t win titles. Even the yoof, as we have experienced with Paul Pogba this summer, are no longer a source of replenishment for the first team squad, unless you are able to provide them with a contract that satiates their individual monetary prerequisites.
SAF’s somewhat clunky way of dealing with our inherently difficult financial situation indicates that certain elements of his managerial skill-set have become awkwardly obsolete as the game has evolved, and I think that all aspects of this problem – including SAF’s managing of it, without suggesting they’re rooted in duplicity – are responsible for Rooney’s attempted escape to victory last year. In convincing him to stay (to SAF’s credit) – with what we can only assume were promises of improvement if the plight could be navigated together – SAF heaped the pressure on Rooney to carry the team through. As these promises have yet to be delivered on, Rooney must be gnawing his own arm off. He’s trapped and when an object under intense pressure becomes trapped by the space it occupies, the outcome is never going to be pretty.
Whether you agree with me, that it’s the public perception of Rooney and the current financial situation at United that are eating away at him and stifling his development, or not (or whether you got those were the points I was making), I think you’d be hard pushed to suggest that everything is working out for him the way he would have wanted. It’s said that those with a genius quality see things afresh – through the eyes of a child; that they have the ability to imagine and create on an unconscious level. For Rooney, it’s perhaps the case that the pressures of the adult world he inhabits, and those things he is hyper-conscious of within that world, are seriously hampering his view.