James Lawton: Worries over the waxing of Wayne

The Rooney phenomenon: The boy who put the bull into ebullient sparks a national debate about his future
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The Independent Online

After his spectacular shoot-out in Coimbra, the verdict on Wayne Rooney was as swift and as inevitable and as uncomplicated as the draw of a gunfighter. He had come into town mopping the sweat from his boyish features. He rode out a man, and not just any man, but one to be fêted - and feared - wherever he went. Everyone, well almost everyone, said so.

After his spectacular shoot-out in Coimbra, the verdict on Wayne Rooney was as swift and as inevitable and as uncomplicated as the draw of a gunfighter. He had come into town mopping the sweat from his boyish features. He rode out a man, and not just any man, but one to be fêted - and feared - wherever he went. Everyone, well almost everyone, said so.

And why not? Certain elemental reactions in football cannot be denied. Rooney, 18 years old, didn't beat Switzerland to preserve England's life in these European Championship finals. He engulfed them. He did this - and it was the most stunning aspect of his impact - while exploring only the edges of an ability that will now be scrutinised match by match, kick by kick. On the previous Sunday night here at the Estadio da Luz he had undermined the champions, France, twisting and surging in a way that spoke of a talent that cannot easily be categorised or channelled because it is a purely natural force. So why the ache at the heart of the celebration?

It is more about us than Rooney. More about the world we have created and he has inherited, a world where it is not enough just to play football instinctively and supremely well. It is a place where you have to fill a role not necessarily of your own choosing.

Here, then, are the two keys to the prospects of Rooney. Which way will he choose? Will he take the route of one of his two boyhood football heroes, Alan Shearer? Or that of the other, Paul Gascoigne? And, most vital of all, having made that decision, which at his age can, anyway, only be provisional, will he be allowed to pursue it?

This, mingling in the often poignantly tortured features of his forerunner and admirer Gascoigne, is both the hope and the fear. The hope is that he will not make Gazza's choice, that he will reject the seductions of showbiz celebrity which embrace and then put down those it selects so randomly and without any understanding that football is not, at its core, an entertainment but something that, while you're doing it, demands everything you have - and without any allowance for rehearsals.

That, of course, was the fate of Gascoigne when he was rejected by the then England coach Glenn Hoddle before the 1998 World Cup in France - and left, virtually alone but for the company of the uncelebrated Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardner, to contemplate the skeleton of his carelessly abandoned football life.

Now, at 37, Gascoigne elects himself the role of Rooney's adviser after a descent into cocaine-induced misery and confusion. He says: "I don't want Wayne to make the mistakes I did. He faces the same hysteria. Wayne Rooney is phenomenal. We have seen absolutely tremendous performances from him. His talent is unbelievable. I spoke to the kid recently and wished him luck and he just gets better and better. For a kid of 18 he's going to be incredible. But he's just got to keep his feet on the ground and not get carried away by all of this. There's a lot of stuff I got up to I don't even remember."

He probably doesn't remember at all clearly the day late in 1990 when he went to the Savoy Hotel in London to collect a Sportsman of the Year trophy from a national newspaper. But an old pro, John Giles, who joined Manchester United when he was 15 and won a Cup-winners' medal before becoming the field general of Leeds United, and who was in Coimbra last week to see the emergence of Rooney on to a new level, recalls that day he talked to the young star Gazza and felt a gnawing apprehension.

"In his way he was witty and charming and obviously the greatest talent of his generation," reported Giles, "but the worrying thing was the way he embraced the celebrity that was pouring upon him. You might have said it was poise, but I thought I saw something else. I thought I saw a love of celebrity for its own sake. I had a terrible fear that I was looking at a kid who had decided that whatever he did on the field he was also going to make himself a great character, and of course in that particular process the football always suffers.

"It gives me no pleasure to have been right, but I do think that young Rooney is coming from somewhere else. I think he is more rooted in the game and his own background. They worry about his aggressive tendencies on the field, but what do they expect? He played football on the streets of Croxteth. He learned to compete there, as hard as you like. He didn't go to a finishing school. Obviously he is a marvellous footballer with every chance of become huge in the world game. The question is: will we let him?"

Will his agents think of the game and his place in it rather than the inhalation of rewards, which now promise to be staggering? Will Wayne's World, as Gazza's was, be invaded by an instant army of hangers-on and snatchers at celebrity? Will he, in the long or short run of his explosive career, be picked up and put down?

For the moment, Rooney is saying the right things. After destroying Switzerland, he said: "I want to go out there to prove that I am among the top players I'm up against. Gazza and Alan Shearer were probably the players I looked up to most when I was young. Hopefully I can follow in the way they played their football, which was brilliant.

"I've seen Shearer giving me advice on TV and I spoke with Gazza when he came to Bellefield [Everton's training ground] a few weeks ago. He was just talking about me keeping going and playing football the way I'm doing now. He's been through a lot, but hopefully his advice will be good for me." It is a sweet and simple thought, and you wish it could be as straightforward as that. Who knows, maybe it will be. Maybe Wayne Rooney is indeed an original, solidly based in his own rampaging young life, and, resuming against Croatia here tomorrow night, his career will be a seamless statement of what can happen when great talent is nourished by a fierce and natural spirit.

It is a wonderfully uplifting thought, and if you think it often enough, you never know, it might just take away the ache.

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