As footballing comparisons go, they don’t get much bigger. To be touted as the second coming of the game’s greatest ever player is some burden, especially for an 18 year old. That Roy Hodgson chose again to invoke the name of Pele when talking about the potential impact of a man suspended for the first two games of the European Championships shows both the high regard in which Wayne Rooney is held and the dearth of other striking options.
Rooney has had to live with such lofty expectations since his earliest steps in the footballing limelight. Elevated to superstar status before he reached the age of majority, there are few who have grown up under such scrutiny. Both on and off the pitch he finds his life subjected to microscopic analysis. Now though is the time for the England forward to finally show what he is all about.
2011-12 was, in Premier League goalscoring terms at least, Rooney’s most productive season in his short career despite the inconsistent (by their high standards) form that Manchester United showed. That should, in theory, suggest that Rooney is about to embark on another golden campaign but his form at the Euros gave little indication that he was ready to step up. Admittedly, he missed the first two games of the tournament, but his conditioning looked woefully short of the required standard given that he had been suspended rather than injured.
Of all the players to travel to Ukraine only Ashley Young and James Milner were more underwhelming than Rooney, and they at least had the excuse of being constrained by the rigid tactics which had been imposed by Roy Hodgson. Rooney, of course, scored a crucial goal in the victory over Ukraine (how could he miss?), but his failure to link midfield with attack left some questioning whether he really is the “world class” forward that he is so often touted as.
Unquestionably Rooney has the attributes to succeed at the highest level. He remains a fabulously instinctive striker and has improved on a number of the perceived weaknesses which used to blight his game. Rooney’s much talked about disciplinary problems appeared a thing of the past last season with a solitary yellow card the only stain on his record. For so long critics suggested that by taking away his tempestuous nature you would effectively neuter the young forward, yet he proved categorically that he can be at his best without that side to his game
Meanwhile, whether due to his own hard work or to the fine crossing of Antonio Valencia, Rooney’s heading ability has now caught up with the dexterity demonstrated by his right boot. When United suffered an injury crisis he was able and willing to slot into central midfield and evidenced why many regard him as a frustrated playmaker. That willingness to focus on particular footballing deficiencies has been paramount in Cristiano Ronaldo’s elevation to greatness. If Rooney can do the same could he catch the Portuguese?
The last time Rooney enjoyed such a prolific season in front of goal was prior to the 2010 World Cup. Then injury against Bayern Munich curtailed a wonderful vein of form, and seemed to weigh heavily on the United striker in South Africa. The following campaign saw Rooney struggle in the opening stages of the season, before finally coming good as the fixtures got interesting. Rooney simply cannot afford to allow such a lengthy hangover this time around.
For with his 27th birthday rapidly approaching, now is the time for England’s talisman to justify the hype. Regarded for years as among football’s elite group of top players, he needs to kick on from last year’s heroics with another season of the same calibre. While few genuinely believed the Pele comparisons there was certainly an expectation that Rooney would be a player capable of challenging for the Ballon D’Or. His fifth place in 2011 was his highest placing yet, but in a year where many of the most legitimate contenders (Robin Van Persie, David Silva, Thiago Silva for instance) failed to even make the 23 man shortlist, and where Rooney picked up just 2% of the vote, it was a slightly hollow achievement.
Admittedly, competing with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is not easy. Yet what sets them apart from their rivals is not just the fabulous array of talents that they possess but the unrelenting consistency with which they apply them. Both have now put in a series of seasons operating at an “all-time” level. In contrast Rooney’s fitful brilliance is what has impeded his elevation to their level. To join them in the halls of football’s pantheon Rooney must now seek to emulate that unyielding desire for improvement. If instead he allows another precious year slip away he risks being remembered as a Premier League great rather than one of the world’s finest players. The decision is surely up to him.