Taming a sublime talent: growing pains of England's teenage rebel

Wayne Rooney does not have far to look for role models to help temper his competitive nature, reports Andy Hunter
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The Independent Football

It was Beckham who bore the brunt of Rooney's belligerence in Belfast last week and not only for daring to question his temperament out on the field of play. It would be in keeping with Rooney's current inability to respect authority that he turned on his international captain at half-time at Windsor Park, although some inside the England camp suggest the argument had more to do with the teenager's dislike of the Real Madrid man's lifestyle and fondness for attention than any automatic decision to respond to criticism with aggression.

Yet it would be another mistake of Rooney's to believe himself to be the complete antithesis of Beckham. He shares the celebrity mantle of his Old Trafford predecessor and an ability to engage the nation in debate once shown a red card by Kim Milton Nielsen.

Crucially, however, Rooney fell foul of the Danish official in an early season Champions' League game wearing the red of Manchester United, never a guarantee of widespread sympathy, and not the white of England in a World Cup duel with Argentina.

There will be no effigies of Rooney hanging from the lampposts of London as a consequence of Wednesday's ridiculous show of petulance, unlike those of Beckham, but there is a desperate urgency over the next nine months for the teenager to heed the England captain's example and read the warning signs.

Nielsen was unwittingly the making of Beckham. Perhaps Rooney should put any personal animosity aside, make a call to Madrid, and discover how it can be the making of him. A willingness to seek advice alone would be an encouraging start.

One of the most patronising reasons offered for Rooney leaving Everton for United was that, once under the protective arm of Sir Alex Ferguson, the temper that brought more bookings than goals at Goodison Park would evaporate, the inference being that David Moyes was running a holiday camp on Merseyside.

Yet while his booking rate has slowed with age the fits of pique have not, with the childish clapping in Nielsen's face a repeat of his reaction to his yellow card against Northern Ireland and bringing a dismissal that has seemed imminent for so long.

So far neither Ferguson, Sven Goran Eriksson nor Moyes have been able to instil the virtues of respect in Rooney, and as the United manager increases his efforts to "eradicate the bad points" the problems he inflicted on United for 26 minutes in Spain would be a fine place to start.

Aside from his audacious talent with a football one of the reasons Ferguson and Roy Keane have so much time for Rooney is that, like them, he possesses the genes of the ultimate competitor and ruthless winner. He is also the complete team player, and the implications of costing United a possible victory in Villarreal will have hit him hard. Polite, shy, embarrassed in the company of strangers and only confident enough to reveal his true personality among those he trusts, Rooney does not easily fill the description of the scallywag who is hell-bent on self-destruction.

His first appearance before a wider TV audience is remembered for his " Once a blue, always a blue" T-shirt, but not the fact that, despite scoring in a one-man show against Aston Villa in the 2002 FA Youth Cup final, Everton were beaten at Goodison Park and Rooney was inconsolable.

No amount of praise from Everton first-team players or coaches could give the then 16-year-old comfort in his individual achievement; he was completely consumed by the defeat of his team.

Likewise the night he replaced James Prinsep as the youngest player ever to appear for England. Standing in the corner of the Upton Park reception with his mother Jeanette after his international debut, he felt responsible for a 3-1 defeat to Australia rather than pride at usurping a record that had stood since Prinsep faced Scotland in 1879.

Wednesday's disgrace was the culmination of a dreadful week for Rooney but one that, in Ferguson's refusal to indulge his £27m striker, offers the hope of a turning point. Too many have indulged the prodigious talent at all costs and reacted furiously to any criticism of him, one lesson he has been quick to follow.

Only last month Rooney insisted he had matured and would steer clear of unnecessary bookings - "Nothing silly like dissent," he said - and while those words have sounded ludicrously hollow in the past seven days hopefully he will recall not only the trials of Beckham, but his own thoughts on signing for United in August of last year.

Then he said: "There are a lot of players with a lot of experience in the dressing-room, I went in this morning and there was Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs sitting there. If I need any advice, I can ask them. The spotlight is going to be on me a bit more because I have just signed for one of the biggest, if not the biggest, clubs in the world. There is going to be a lot more pressure but I am big enough and strong enough to handle it."

Red mist: the low points

(Dec 2002 St Andrews)

Dismissed for the first time after a late tackle on Steve Vickers leaves the defender needing eight stitches in an ankle wound.

(Sept 2003 White Hart Lane)

Booked for swearing at the referee to take his total card count to 14 yellows and one red in just over a year with Everton.

(Nov 2004 Bernabeu)

Taken off before half-time after a number of bad tackles. Throws down armband.

(Sept 2005 Windsor Park)

Booked for an ugly aerial challenge on Chris Baird. David Beckham attempts to calm him down but fails.

(Sep 2005 El Madrigal)

Sent off after applauding referee Kim Milton Nielsen after being booked.