James Lawton: Rooney must be steered away from pitfalls of fame

Beckham encourages it, Gascoigne revelled in it but personal publicity is potent destroyer of talent that England's young star should shun
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The Independent Football

There will be a time, quite soon I suspect, when the David Beckham saga will drop from the sky like a bird with frozen wings.

The law of gravity insists on this because there is evidence that even the most assiduous myth-makers are beginning to grasp that not even in this age of celebrity has so much been sustained by so little for quite so long.

Various factors will scale down the frenzy currently surrounding a footballer whose prime newsworthiness at the moment, let's not forget, centres on the fact that his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, having dropped him from two of the most important matches of an ultimately triumphant season for Manchester United, has decided he has become surplus to needs.

This vital but generally sidetracked point is more topical than most concerning Beckham because a similar situation could be fast developing with England.

In this, much depends on 17-year-old Wayne Rooney's second appearance with the national team in a competitive match against Slovakia in the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough tomorrow night. If he exerts similar influence to that which he produced in the important victory over Turkey up the road at Sunderland in April, it will be clinching evidence that he has become utterly central to the coach Sven Goran Eriksson's hopes of first qualifying for and then making an impact on next summer's European Championship finals in Portugal. It might also invite fresh comparisons with Beckham's recent contributions to the England cause.

The last competitive one against Turkey was as unfortunate as Rooney's was luminously match-changing. Beckham was booked early, played most of the game in heightened but extremely unproductive emotion and when he converted a penalty, something which he certainly does well, he ran excitedly into the arms of a crowd which had already disgraced itself with both racism and pitch invasion. This did not, naturally, prevent him volunteering a broadcast appearance to urge good behaviour and restraint on England fans.

If it is true, as some hold, that most of the Beckham story has been a bizarre cycle waiting to be broken, it could well be that the exasperation of Ferguson and the precocious brilliance of Rooney will come to be seen as the determining factors. Certainly it will be fascinating to see England performing in a match which has meaning without Beckham - and all the exaggerations of his importance that his presence entails.

Inevitably intriguing will be the response of Liverpool team-mates Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen to the Beckham vacuum. It was certainly interesting that Gerrard chose this time to eulogise Owen. He spoke of Owen's potential to break all of England's goal and appearance records. If it wouldn't have been so pointed, he might also have mentioned how Owen's achievements - 20 goals in 49 appearances at the age of 23 - have been unaccompanied by any courtship of publicity. Owen, like Alan Shearer before him, has shown that super-stardom can be achieved while sleeping in beds separate from the media.

No one needs to absorb this message more completely than Wayne Rooney. It is clear as we see every small infraction of the boy hugely magnified, the key to the most potentially significant England career since the emergence of Paul Gascoigne. Comparisons with Gazza are inevitable. There is the same extraordinary talent, the same boyish relish in playing the game, but while Gazza embraced the arrival of celebrity so enthusiastically he quickly provoked questions about the true thrust of his ambition - was it to be a real player or a mere character - Rooney encourages the hope that the game itself will remain an absolute priority.

Of course there will be slips and embarrassments along the way, and some of them no doubt will be grotesquely played upon, but these will be less important than Rooney's own reaction to the escalation of his fame.

He has two ways to go. He has the Beckham way - or the Owen way. Here, in fairness we should say that Beckham's way has never involved the kind of irresponsible behaviour which dragged down Gazza. His personal conduct off the field has been exemplary. He hasn't abused his body, at least outside of a hairdressing parlour, and he hasn't let down his family, his club or himself in terms of behaviour. Where he has plagued his manager's spirit to the point of his current reaching for the water bowl and the towels is in the narcissistic pursuit of celebrity, the overwhelming sense that apart from the developing of commercial value Beckham has also been responding to something deep in his nature. Fame for him, as it plainly did for Gascoigne to a certain extent, has become a goal in itself.

Such an attitude will never square with the impulse of a supreme and consistent performer and while Beckham's team-mate Gareth Southgate is right to warn young Rooney of dangers that lie ahead, he might have added that the biggest threat to his future would be a failure to reach out for the blinkers such as Shearer and Owen have always worn against the possibility of serious distraction. Said Southgate yesterday: "Maturing in public, with the expectations of the country upon you, must be incredibly hard. There have been huge changes since I started. You are so much under the spotlight now." But you don't have to run into that spotlight. You don't have to seek it out. You, or your advisers, don't have to get restive the moment it stops playing on you.

Recently Rooney's advisers, the Pro-active Group, listed a formidable group of employees who would be attending to the growth of their client's career. By now someone should have been directed to the rooting out of old film of the young Gazza - on and off the field.

This would show Rooney a talent of the level of his own. And then they could show him evidence of the torment which came off the field. They could perhaps show a re-run of an interview Gazza did with Terry Wogan. Rooney could hear Gazza complaining about the pressure that was building around him, and how he was obliged to come to the studio hidden in the boot of a car.

What Rooney would not hear were the questions that needed to be asked but weren't until it was too late. Why was Gascoigne in the studio, anyway? Why was he complaining of tiredness when a few days earlier he had made the ghastly video recording, Fog on the Tyne? Why was he doing modelling sessions at a time when he was crying off training because of fatigue? What Wogan actually said to Gascoigne was, "Don't worry about your critics. Just make all the money you can - while you can."

Wayne Rooney shouldn't worry about his critics. But he should deny them significant ammunition. So far he has made a few indiscreet tackles, chewed gum at an absurd awards presentation and forgotten to pull up his tie.

Suggestions that other acts of boisterous youth have been carefully suppressed should cause no great concern. He is 17 and exposed to public attention in an unprecedented way. He will make the odd mistake, inevitably. But he must avoid the big one. He must never forget that his purpose is to play football. When you do that the chances are you will fall out of the sky.