Rooney: The Botham of football – in the best possible way

Somewhere in his attic, there is a portrait of Ryan Giggs in which he looks just like Wayne Rooney.

Rooney was just five years old when Giggs made his Premier League debut for Manchester United. At 24, you could not be entirely certain which of the pair has most miles on the clock. Certainly Rooney must be glad Arsenal's midfielders don't track back as rapidly as his own hairline. Now that he's a dad, of course, it's only going to accelerate. Maybe he can get some extensions off team-mate Dimitar Berbatov.

When Rooney himself emerged, unruly and pugnacious, he seemed a typical child of his time. He has probably written more books than he has read. But as we have come to know him better – and, in fairness, as he has matured towards the even self-image by which Giggs, and others, have long reflected their manager's greatest art – we have grasped that he is actually a throwback to another age altogether.

For here is a sporting idol immune to the gorgeous egotism of the celebrity whose departure last summer has ignited this goalscoring firestorm. Not that Rooney lacks subtleties of his own. It is just that they have not seen anything like this in Manchester since James Bellough and William Kenworthy invented the Lancashire Loom in 1842. And when you look at the world game, and the way Rooney is bearing down upon its greatest tournament, he stands as perhaps the ultimate expression of the Premier League's own industrial revolution.

Lionel Messi, in contrast, might have been devised by a Swiss clockmaker. The pistons in Rooney's legs and chest pound away in the same, can-do, empire-building way as, say, Ian Botham. In both men, dynamism is not just a means to an end – it is a match-winning strategy in its own right. Keep weaving away at the loom of youth, and you will frighten the bejaysus out of anyone, however secretly, nursing a deficiency of belief or spirit.

There is more to both than the bulldog caricature, naturally, but that is the short cut they have shared in the nation's esteem. For all their dexterity with the blade, it is the buccaneering relish with which they go about their work that sets them apart. The sword is never, ever sheathed.

In a man like that, you mind his temper. But at least you know where you stand. True, that might sooner invite affection than love – a privilege we tend to reserve for the more delicate, vulnerable genius. There are tragic heroes in the belligerent mould, too: men like Colin Milburn, who counted Botham among the pall-bearers at his funeral. As a rule, however, those who give their all, without reservation, lack fatal mystery. You see it in racehorses, too. In the great Gold Cup showdown scheduled for Cheltenham next month, Kauto Star trades on his swagger. It is Denman, "the tank", who gilds and exalts those rudiments we consider yeoman in lesser creatures.

And that is precisely what we adore in sporting heroes of this type. Village cricketers and pub footballers soar to uncharted altitudes of mediocrity through pure, cussed endeavour. In Botham, or Rooney, they see their only assets cherished even by those with the full armoury of greatness.

If Rooney keeps going – and, metatarsals permitting, he will – he might yet extend the lion's dominion in Africa. But really they would do better to replace the badge on his shirt with a Toby jug.