The 'other Rooney' is a hot prospect for Barcelona
Sprinter aims to grab back one of Britain's sporting crown jewels, the 400m, at European showpiece
At about the same time that Wayne Rooney was packing his bags in Bloemfontein last Sunday following England's plodding, leaden World Cup campaign, Martyn Rooney was galloping down the home straight at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham looking every inch the kind of thoroughbred capable of making the winner's enclosure at a major international sporting event this summer.
The distinctive figure of the tall, upright Croydon Harrier won the men's 400m final at the British trials for the European Championships by a considerable margin, breaking 45 seconds for the second time this summer. He will travel to Barcelona in three weeks' time as favourite for a continental crown that was once regarded as part and parcel of Britain's sporting crown jewels, having been held between 1986 and 1998 by Roger Black (who won twice in succession), Du'aine Ladejo and Iwan Thomas.
Like his 24-year-old footballing namesake, the running Rooney, 23, has long been regarded as a rare talent in his particular sporting sphere. Back in 2005, at 18, he ran for the senior British team in the 4 x 400m relay at the World Championships in Helsinki, clocking a 44.8sec split and missing a medal by one place in the final. He finished sixth in the individual 400m final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but was hamstrung by injury last season, bowing out at the semi-final stage at the World Championships in Berlin.
This summer Rooney looks to be back in the groove, ready to take his lifetime best from 44.60sec down towards Thomas's British record figures of 44.36. Not that he can expect to make a name exclusively for himself, given that he happens to share it with the mega-profile Manchester United man.
"It really doesn't bother me," Rooney says, taking a swig of Ribena before a lunchtime physio session at his East Midlands training base, the UK Athletics High Performance Centre at Loughborough University. "If he was rubbish it would be different but he's pretty awesome at what he does. It's cool. It makes it easier for me to be marketed as an athlete and there's nothing bad with the press attention it brings. It's all positive stuff.
"It could be a lot worse," he added. "I could have had the same name as someone who's been in a drugs scandal or something like that."
Or perhaps his sporting talents might have lain in a different sporting arena, leaving him trying to make his mark as another footballing Rooney? "I loved playing football when I was younger but it was only in the playground at school," the lifelong Crystal Palace fan reflects. "I didn't play in the school team. I went to a big rugby school, John Fisher School in Purley.
"Paul Sackey went to John Fisher. He was in the sixth form when I went there. I remember running away from him, as a leery first year, shouting abuse. That's what you do when you're 11 and 12. I've never actually had the pleasure of meeting him – outside of those memories. There's a mural at our school of the pair of us together."
Sackey, the dreadlocked former England wing who has left London Wasps for Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon this summer, must be a rare individual. It is difficult to imagine the amiable Rooney provoking anyone's ire. You could hardly find a more mellow fellow – unless you happened to bump into the Lightning Bolt, perhaps.
Rooney's running ability might not be on the same out-of-this-world scale as Usain Bolt's (no other mere mortal's has been) but in terms of raw, natural talent he is the British equivalent of the young, beanpole Jamaican. Both are 23, both have been reported as being 6ft 5in. The man who destroyed the 100m and 200m world records is 1.96m tall, which does indeed convert to 6ft 5in. Rooney, however, is in fact 1.98m – 6ft 6in – which makes him bigger than Bolt in at least one respect.
"But he's a phenomenal athlete," the South Londoner says. "I think if he trained hard enough for 400m he would break the world record but at the moment he's not bothered. He doesn't want to do it. I'd love to race him at 400m."
As it happens, there is a vacancy at the top of the global tree in the one-lap event. LaShawn Merritt, the American who was a runaway winner at the Beijing Olympics and the World Championships in Berlin, is out of commission, having tested positive for the anabolic steroid dehydroepiandrosterone, which he claims was contained in an over-the-counter male enhancement product he had taken.
"I was gutted when I heard," Rooney says. "Obviously he's innocent until proven guilty, but I was genuinely disappointed. I enjoyed competing against him. He was a nice guy and an amazing runner and you find out he's failed a drugs test. It's just frustrating. But what can you do?"
He added: "If you look past the fast times in which he won the finals in Beijing and Berlin, second and third were not that quick. If you take him out, it's a low 44sec to win it and that's something I feel I'm capable of doing. So, yeah, the door is open at world level. It's about who turns up on the day and runs well rather than who's taken the most drugs."
Not that there is a global championship on the horizon for Rooney this summer, just the continental one looming in the Catalan capital, beyond the Aviva British Grand Prix Diamond League meeting at Gateshead next Saturday. "I'm quite excited," he says of the European Championships, which run from 27 July to 1 August in the 1992 Olympic Stadium. "People can build me up as favourite. I'm just going to stay focused on myself. It should be interesting. It should be really fun."
More fun than that other Rooney chap managed to squeeze out of his 2010 international championship sojourn, one suspects.
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