Even without physical comparisons with his former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney is unable to keep up with todays hard-running demands
In between buffing and burnishing his alarmingly sculpted physique, Cristiano Ronaldo likes to take 3am ice baths to boost his metabolism. He fees six high-protein meals a day, rarely drinks alcohol and refuses soft drink. Away from the constant undertaking of tweaking his already unimprovable musculature, Ronaldo relaxes by swimming, sleeping a strict eight hours and oh yes doing 3,000 sit ups a day in front of the television.
It is of course pointless to compare mere mortals with such extreme athletic obsession. But this does still seem to be the lot of Wayne Rooney, in part because of the similarity in ages( Ronaldo is eight months older ), the bud of their shared youth at Manchester United and above all the increasingly stark divergence in their physical capacity as the early 30 s started to bite.
It is a false comparing on other levels. Rooney and Ronaldo are different physical types. Rooney has been injured more often. His weight goes up and down. Plus of course Rooney smokings and drinkings, as confirmed again this week by news of his appearance at a wedding reception at the Grove hotel in Watford in the wee hours of Sunday when, presumably unable to situate the hotel ice baths, Rooney settled instead for swigging red wine and generally behaving in an agreeable if somewhat goonish way. Cue predictable waves of not entirely persuading moral outrage at an England player get a little carried away on a team night off.
Does any of this matter? For Gareth Southgate the choice seems simple. Rooney should not be dropped from the England team because he was drunk at 5am. Rooney should rather be dropped because he is no longer mobile and effective enough to get in the team.
Similarly Rooney should not be fell from the squad because it is unbefitting of the England captain to be stumbling around like a comedy drunk, as one onlooker described him. He should instead be fallen because his value as an experienced substitute is diminished by the cakewalk of qualification. And above all and here the issue of conditioning does come in because his diminishing capabilities preclude any sensible Rooney-based planning for a tournament 20 months from now.
Forget the booze, the funny pics, the scented kerchief of phoney outrage. Human beings will always like a drink. There is even something quite sweet about it all. Had this been Bobby Moore or Dixie Dean turning up at a bridal in pre-smartphone, less vicarious times, the whole thing would already be safely packaged as a heartwarming dont-make-em-like-that-any-more narrative of fond times past. Beyond the basic pleasures of gawping, this is all simply noise.
Above all it is a distraction from the real question. Which is the increasing gulf, the parallax error between Rooneys status as captain of Manchester United and England and the sixth-highest paid footballer in the world, and his actual contribution on the pitch.
So stark is the sense of a player simply hanging in there, legs pumping roadrunner-style, bear aloft by the warm currents of reputation and status and the machinery of sporting celebrity, it is tempting to skip listing once again the evidence presented by deterioration, and look instead at exactly why English sport makes a habit of this kind of thing. The zombie superstar, still staggering past, still monetising their brand, insulated by a parasitic corporate structure of aides and hangers-on has become a very English phenomenon.
It is a process that takes hold slowly, based in the require, as with Rooney, to protect any successful sportsperson from the idiot gusts of tribalism and reflexive criticism that comes with simply being successful. The notion that Rooney is finished has been washing around since the defeat by Italy on penalties at Euro 2012, since when he has scored 24 goals in 40 England games and led the team through two qualification campaigns.
To say it now is not spite or revisionism, or an attempt to belittle what has been a fine career. Undoubtedly the reaction to Rooneys decline the obvious dying back of acceleration and explosive power has at times been hysterical, as though Rooney is doing this on purpose, as though he alone is responsible for the furred arteries of English football. His crime has been to be good but not great, and to be the most visible English talent of an underwhelming generation. There is a Pavlovian quality to much of the bile. With each stop in play, each misplaced England pass, the Tv cameras will cut to Rooneys pale blank flat features, stoking the ambient howls.
Rooney has remained effective enough through this. It has been the correct sporting decision to keep him in the team. This is now no longer the instance. Adam Lallanas fine 27 minutes against Spain emphasised the fact that Rooney is not Englands best No10. He cant play as a central striker. The discontinued attempts to shoehorn him into a deeper stance have coincided with a running of one penalty goal in his last eight games. His performances as a midfielder( I can still dictate games truly? Because nobody genuinely does that these days) merely emphasised the quiet craft of the genuine midfielder. Rooney, who has always been a star, played central midfield like a starring, as though constantly solving a problem, floating those telegraphed inside-out pass for a inexpensive round of applause.
It has been a fairly simple process of physical deterioration. Rooneys early brilliance was based in explosiveness, fearless spring, the ability to move and react and follow his advises with sudden and breathtaking power. As these qualities lessened so he has become useful instead, a more steady, versatile player. But he lacks the really extreme qualities of touch and vision and technique to keep playing this way a Hagi, a Pirlo into his early dotage.
And here the Ronaldo comparison does come in. Football is an ever more concussive, unforgiving athletic discipline. Rooney is just not suited to following the Pochettino-style hard-running game Southgate wants to drill into this group of players. He has also been absent for the best moments this year. Against Spain on Tuesday and in Germany in March England were remarkably swift and slick in possession, more athletic, more inventive moving the ball in attack. It is simply time to give in to other forces, other rhythms. Why hasnt this happened?
In most athletics a performance on the scale of the collective breakdown against Iceland would have been the final cut for an ageing captain. And yet in the last six months the idea Rooney could be fell has been angrily dismissed in the media by ex colleagues or friends or contemporaries. One usually excellent Tv pundit has even suggested Rooney should carry on as Englands holding midfielder. Why be brought to an end? Why not goalkeeper? Why not get him to sing the anthems, or sit him on a chair in the centre circle with a bowl of popcorn?
It isnt hard to see why this kind of stasis happens. Personal loyalties aside, Rooney is a power centre, an industry force in English football. There are commercial and political pressures here. Is Southgate really ready to face them down? To take on Rooney is to take on the Rooney-industrial complex, Big Rooney with all its associated power and PR structures. There is a toxic aspect to this. Rooney has had seven directors for club and country in the last three-and-a-half years. Four have been sacked. All four constructed him their captain. Like all dying superstars he seems to dedicating off more dead heat the closer he gets to winking out. Should he be offered the job, and should he have the heart for it, Southgate will have the chance to make a decisive call. Forget the bridals, the wine-stained lips, the fuzzy 5am frown. For purely sporting reasons, it is simply time to take that plunge.
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