Rooney displays the maturity to match England's high expectations

Click to follow
The Independent Football

You try and remember what you were like at 18. A bit gauche, very naïve, just discovering the opportunities afforded by living away from home. Plenty of good memories, but a few you would rather forget. A few you are glad occurred in obscurity.

You try and remember what you were like at 18. A bit gauche, very naïve, just discovering the opportunities afforded by living away from home. Plenty of good memories, but a few you would rather forget. A few you are glad occurred in obscurity.

Then you try and put that 18-year-old self into Wayne Rooney's shoes. In many ways Rooney is living the dream, centre forward for Everton, the team he supported as a boy, and England. He is also wealthy beyond his dreams. But he is never out of the spotlight. The paparazzi follow his every move. There is already a biography, co-written by two journalists, neither of whom had ever spoken to him and one of whom had never seen him play. His home was targeted by vandals and the family forced to move away. There was a chorus of disapproval just for appearing on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year chewing gum with his collar undone.

Add the weight of expectation he carries for club and country, both of whom see him as the alchemist who can reverse years of under-achievement, and it is a lot for a boy who left school at 16, with little in the way of paper qualifications, to handle.

Since erupting into the national consciousness two years ago, Rooney has been kept under wraps by Everton, with public appearances limited to the bare minimum. Yesterday, after months of careful negotiations with his club and his handlers, the Football Association brought Rooney out of purdah.

Television, radio and newspapers, each arm of a rapacious media, had their separate 15 minutes with the "Fameboy".

What was he like? Composed, disarmingly eloquent, even charming, enjoying the joke when he was introduced to one of his biographers. Someone has been working hard on the previously monosyllabic teenager. They have done a good job, and he has proved an able learner. It has helped, noted one aide, being around the England team, watching and learning from the way people like Michael Owen and, increasingly, Steven Gerrard conduct themselves.

Rooney showed no sign of egomania, a real pitfall for one so praised, so young. The first question asked him to recount an incident before the home European Championship qualifier with Turkey. Looking slightly embarrassed, he matter-of-factly recalled: "I managed to get the ball, beat a few players and chip the goalie [David James]. All the players looked at me and started clapping. It was one of my first sessions so I was made up really."

Rooney burst on to the scene in October 2002 when his stunning last-minute goal detonated one of Arsenal's early attempts at a season-long unbeaten run. He was still a few days short of his 17th birthday and the precocious talent Everton had been trying to shield - he had long been a goalscoring schoolboy legend locally - was out in the open. Less than six months later came the inspirational performance against Turkey which proved he could do it at the highest level. Did life change after that?

"It was a lot different but I expected that, being such a young lad and starting the game for England," he said. One of the changes was a move away from Croxteth, one of the more challenged parts of Merseyside, where he grew up with his father Wayne senior, an unemployed labourer, his mother, Jeanette, a dinner-lady, and brothers Graham and John. Both were also on Everton's books, though Graham now concentrates on boxing. The family has a boxing background - an aspect which found unfortunate expression in the dust-up which accompanied the 18th birthday party Rooney hosted for his fiancée.

The subsequent tabloid (and broadsheet) coverage of that was a reminder of the level of scrutiny Rooney will live his life under. There is jealousy too: his father's tyres were slashed by vandals and the house splattered with paint before the family moved.

Until then Rooney would return home from playing in the Premiership with Everton and, as he said: "I'd knock on my mates' houses and we'd have a kick-around in the street. It's more difficult to do that now. Since I got in the England team I get recognised a lot more and I'm in my own house far away. I don't see my old mates so much. I've had to mature a lot quicker than a normal 18-year-old."

Is that one of the downsides? "There aren't any downsides. Any 18-year-old in the world would swap for what I'm doing." Who keeps your feet on the ground? "I keep my feet on the ground. I've got good people around me, a good family and girlfriend. They all help me along but I have got to do it myself. If I don't there is no point in them helping me. I've got to be sensible, take advice and be focused."

It was all very encouraging given Gary Lineker is not alone in thinking Rooney could be the greatest English footballer for several generations. Others fear we may be seeing the best of him already, that he will lose his edge, either mentally or physically. On his 18th birthday, David Moyes, his manager at Everton, said: I've got to say it's a concern if mine whether he has peaked too early. It's important he's a good player when he's 17, but what's he going to be like when he's 27? I'm doing all I can to bring him on gradually and I don't think the level of publicity helps."

Moyes may have had in mind the glitzy 18th birthday bash at Aintree with its cast of celebrity Merseysiders. This was arranged in conjunction with his agents, Paul Stretford's ProActive organisation, who acquired Rooney as a client after a bitter dispute with a Merseyside rival. Stretford's company are not universally popular, though several managers have had links with them, but they are experienced and have kept Rooney lower-profile since. Stretford was there in person yesterday, overseeing his charge.

The example for any precocious striker, as it was for Owen, should be Alan Shearer. Alan Irvine, Moyes' assistant, has compared Rooney to Shearer, with whom he worked at Blackburn and Newcastle. Irvine added: "Shearer was a hungry player who has kept that desire all his life. That is what young hopefuls like Wayne have to do. There is no doubt about his ability but you have to keep wanting to do it."

Rooney cited Shearer as a role model, along with Kenny Dalglish. Tellingly he added: "It was their attitude more than anything else. They both wanted to win. I'm the same."

At present this desire leads into the referees' book rather too often. Moyes has expressed concern at his level of booking but Sven Goran Eriksson did not agree, while Rooney was unapologetic. "My temperament is a big part of my game," he said. "If there's a tackle there to be won I'm going to go in there. If I'm booked so be it."

Rooney added that, contrary to appearances, he does get nervous before matches "but as soon as the game kicks off I feel relaxed. Once I'm on the pitch I just concentrate on trying to win the game." How about the pressure of expectation? "It's not pressure is it really? Going out and playing for your country. There are a lot worse things you could be doing."

England expects a lot of Wayne Rooney. He has always had the talent to meet those expectations. This morning there is reason to believe he also has the temperament.

Comments