LONDON — Even when he is not just good but very, very good Wayne Rooney seems unable to suppress his genius for being, well, shockingly bad.
In some ways the rap sheet of the 25-year-old Manchester United and England striker is beginning to read more like a record of psychological disintegration.
This trend, which started most strikingly in last year’s World Cup when after a wretched performance against Algeria in a group game he yelled into a pitch-side camera and microphone his obscenity-laced complaints about the booing of the England fans, who curiously enough were less than thrilled to have travelled to the southern tip of Africa to see an effort which would have been underwhelming in their own backyards.
Last weekend he surpassed that example of failed grace after quite masterfully scoring a hat-trick at West Ham that restored momentum to United’s frequently desperate attempt to win their fourth Premier League title in five years. This time he roared more obscenity into the camera, a reaction which his friends said was a direct response to the baiting he had received from the home crowd, much of which was consumed by allegations of Rooney’s sexual preference for ageing grandmothers.
A tawdry business, by any standards, and the ruling Football Association decided that they had to take action. They decided to ban Rooney from two matches, including next weekend’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley against United’s fierce rivals Manchester City.
United were outraged, naturally, but some said the FA should have gone further, including a police chief in the midlands town of Wolverhampton, who blogged that if he had been in charge of the game he would have had his officers march the offender straight to the cells.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said, reasonably enough, that the policeman had over-reacted and would be much better attempting to pacify the streets of his own jurisdiction. He also said that the FA were pursuing some kind of vendetta against United — a claim which he believed was supported by his own recent touch-line ban for casting doubts on the integrity of a referee who had made some decisions unfavourable to his club.
What he could not dispute, however, is that for the best part of a year now his star forward seems to have made a deep commitment to the challenge of dragging the image of the national game ever further into the gutter.
During the World Cup — in which his performances were so dismayingly poor they made a mockery of claims that he might just rival the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta as one of the top players of the great tournament — Rooney gave a hang-dog press conference in which he complained of excruciating boredom at the team’s five-star training headquarters on the high veld.
He then returned home to continue in a vein of catastrophic form amid marriage-threatening tabloid revelations that he had been consorting with a prostitute and on one occasion had tipped a hotel porter roughly $300 to get him a packet of Marlboro cigarettes.
Soon enough there was another firestorm when he demanded to leave United because they hadn’t shown enough ambition in their summer transfer moves — an initiative that was swiftly jettisoned when the club offered a sharply improved contract which took his earnings to around $2 million a month.
None of this was helped by Rooney’s appalling performances. Some fans crowded around the gates of the player’s mansion in the stock-broker belt of Manchester and demanded a meeting in which he might explain his behaviour. Instead, he called the police. At this point it seemed necessary to point out that Rooney seemed to value the opinion of the fans about as much as a Marlboro dog-end.
Up until the last few weeks some were beginning to believe the best of Rooney the player, the marvellously skilful and visionary kid who had come miraculously out of the tough backstreets of Liverpool and barnstormed the 2004 European championships in Portugal before being cut down by injury, had been eroded.
But now Rooney is displaying again all the quality that persuaded Ferguson to part with $52 million seven years ago. He was wonderfully resolute at West Ham and last Tuesday, at Chelsea, he gave United a big edge before Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal, by scoring the only goal, quite exquisitely.
Again he ran at the pitch-side camera but this time without suggesting he was auditioning for a re-make of The Exorcist. Then something extraordinary happened. Rooney smiled. So maybe hold the men in the white coats, at least for another day or two. At least it’s a pretty thought in a rather ugly story.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.