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Why Wayne Rooney will never be a great player

Simon BarnesNovember 14, 2014
Wayne Rooney is set to win his 100th England cap against Slovenia

On every available bit of evidence, Wayne Rooney is one of the finest footballers ever to play for England. On Saturday he wins his 100th cap and will be only the ninth England player to do so. Bryan Robson, Michael Owen, Gordon Banks, Paul Scholes, Alan Ball and Martin Peters are among those who never got there.

Rooney has scored 43 goals for England - more than Michael Owen, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse or Alan Shearer. He is now England captain, as was David Beckham, Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan. And yet all around him, as inseparable from him as that scowl of concentration, hangs the aura of disappointment.

Rooney is a very good footballer. Correction: a very, very good footballer. But he might have become a great footballer and he didn't and never will. That's something that he and we must live with.

He will get his 100th cap as a player of solidity. A man to rely on, a man to cluster round, a good egg

Where did it all go wrong? It didn't. There was just some point along the line when something needed to be, well, different from what actually happened; where his career missed its trajectory. We can argue about where this point was - but there's no denying that it happened.

Was it bad luck with injuries? Was it bad management? Was it his own limitations? Was it his choice: a preference for the easier route? You must always praise Rooney for his achievements, which are considerable - but there's always a little bit of you that wonders why he wasn't even better.

This is because, in England at any rate, Rooney is judged mostly on what he has done as an international. He might be one of the last English footballers to be judged that way, as the importance of international football continues to wane - but the fact is that Rooney tends to be assessed in the context of England's disappointing performances in the last three World Cups.

At least I saw the very best of Rooney. I was in the stadium at Coimbra when England played Switzerland in the 2004 European Championship and then a few days later in the Stadium of Light in Lisbon when they played Croatia. Rooney was 18 and he took over both matches with an audacity I hadn't seen from an England player since Paul Gascoigne.

Wayne Rooney "ceased to be Prince Hamlet, became an attendant Lord" to Cristiano Ronaldo © PA Photos
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He was filled with the glorious belief that he could beat anybody. His then club manager at Everton, David Moyes, called him the last of the back-street footballers and it really was as if Rooney was out there in black and white playing on the bomb-site with cut knees and a truant disposition. He took on a major international tournament as if it were a kick-about and scored four goals in two games.

There were two ways of enjoying this. You could be lost in the wonder of what was unfolding before you or you could throw it forward and wonder about a footballer who might bring us such joys for years and years. In sport - in most matters - it is better to concentrate on the former kind of joy. The second so often brings disappointment.

England went out of that competition in the quarter-finals against Portugal. Rooney was substituted, injured, after 27 minutes. That was the last time I watched England in a major tournament and felt that they had a chance of winning the damn thing.

The then England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson dared to build his team around Rooney for the World Cup of 2006. England and Rooney played a top-quality and undefeated qualifying tournament. But, shortly before the finals, Rooney was injured in a club match - by then he was with Manchester United - and the instant it occurred, I and half the nation gasped in chorus: "God! It's a metatarsal".

So Rooney had to play the part of saviour, coming back from a rehab that included lengthy stints in an oxygen tent to join England late in the second match at the group stage. And, of course, he wasn't match-fit. Eriksson's gamble had failed and in the quarter-finals, Rooney, overwhelmed by disappointment, got sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho of Portugal. England - you may have heard this one before - went out on penalties. Thus Rooney's pattern of disappointment was established and has never looked like being altered.

It was the untamed part of him that might have taken him further - and that died. I'm still in mourning for it

Why didn't Rooney train on? Why didn't he grow into a footballer of greatness? He didn't burn out, as sometimes happens with a prodigy. He didn't succumb to injuries, as can happen to any footballer, particularly one of his heavy build. He matured into a player anybody would want in his team. But he never again came close to greatness.

Perhaps it comes down to Manchester United and, in particular, to Cristiano Ronaldo, another prodigy and a player who really did mature into one of the greats. So many times, when Ronaldo played for Manchester United, the players would line up and Rooney would trot out to left midfield and fetch and carry for the Portuguese; doing what his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, demanded.

So Rooney became the good pro, as good a pro as you'll find. He was no longer cock of the walk, but he was always in the team. He ceased to be Prince Hamlet, became an attendant Lord and played the part damn well.

He never dominated matches. He never shaped a team to his own will. He never again walked into a pitch in the certainty that he could beat anyone they cared to chuck against him. Maturing well has been Rooney's triumph as a footballer and as a person - but it came at the cost of the greatness he had within him.

He will get his 100th cap as a player of solidity. A man to rely on, a man to cluster round, a good egg, the kind that all managers love. But it was the untamed part of him that might have taken him further - and that died. I'm still in mourning for it and perhaps, in his heart, Rooney is too. The back-streets are far behind now. But a damn good pro. Really, a damn good pro.

Wayne Rooney tends to be assessed in the context of England's disappointing performances in the last three World Cups © Getty Images
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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for ESPN.co.uk, as well as ESPNFC.com and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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