Wayne Rooney is not a man given to opening up on his moments of vulnerability, or entertaining self-doubt, so it came as some surprise when he mentioned in conversation at St George’s Park this week that he almost quit football aged 14.
As it turns out, English football has Colin Harvey to thank for rescuing one of the most prodigious, if occasionally infuriating, talents the game has known from walking away. As he awaits his 100th cap against Slovenia today, Rooney, 29, may never have delivered England a trophy but imagine what it would have been like without him. After all, his generation did not produce another outstanding talent.
It was Harvey, then at the academy at Everton, who told Rooney that his gift for football would carry him into the first team sooner than he thought – and he was proved right within two years. Harvey, 69, player, manager, assistant and youth team coach at different times over 40 years at Everton, is one of those men about whom people in football always speak fondly. And it was he who could get through to the truculent teenage Rooney.
“Colin Harvey was a massive help because when I was about 14 I really stopped enjoying playing football,” Rooney says. “I was being told to do different things that I didn’t want to do and it was really down to Colin Harvey that I carried on. He sat me down and made me fall back in love with it. From that moment on, I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to be doing.’ At that time I was doing boxing as well as football, but that’s when I focused solely on football. Thankfully, it was the right decision.
“At that age you just want to go and play football. And then you start getting told what different things to do on the pitch. You’re learning the tactics of the game. I felt at that moment that I just wanted to enjoy it. I remember going home and telling my dad that I didn’t want to go any more. My dad was upset with me. And then I went in to see Colin Harvey and he was great for me – really from then, that’s when the progression was rapid for me.
“He just said he had seen players throughout his career and that he hadn’t seen any with the talent that I had, so I would be making a mistake. He said he would always be there to help me and support me. And he said, ‘If you keep working hard, then you will be in the first team quicker than you think.’ That’s when I really thought, ‘He used to be Everton manager, so he knows the game.’ Thankfully, I listened to him.”
This afternoon, Rooney will be accompanied by his sons Kai and Klay as he leads his team out at Wembley to receive the golden cap now standard for all centurions. The English football public has a schizophrenic relationship with its leading player. He has never delivered in a tournament since he was unleashed at Euro 2004 yet even now, more than 11 years on since his debut, he remains the man, as Paul Scholes said this week, who England turn to when they need a goal.
Rooney’s career is typified by that moment at 14 when, sick of being told what to do, he decided just to jack it in. He can be indecently careless with his talent at times – not least that red card at the 2006 World Cup finals – but like the difficult boy at school who makes it through to the end against all the odds, Rooney is still here. With his boxer’s shoulders, ballerina feet and street-corner snarl, his has been a process of adjustment ever since he left Harvey’s office 15 years ago. And still it goes on.
What would he have done without football? A keen student of boxing, Rooney says he knows how difficult it is to make it in that game. “I suppose I just have to look at what my friends are doing. Some of them are doing landscaping. Some of them are builders, so maybe... I don’t know.” His voice trails away. It would have been a waste. But there is no hand-wringing. Rooney is his own man, prepared to do what he likes and screw what the rest think.
It is interesting to hear him talk about his older son, Kai, five, who more than once he has said has little interest in football. It is notable there is no concern in Rooney’s voice when he mentions that. It is as if, you suspect, he would not care a jot if his son were to ignore the sport that has made his father so wealthy.
“He [Kai] has been great for me, actually, because when people come up to me for a picture now, he starts moaning,” says Rooney, laughing at the recollection. “It means the fans don’t know what to do! He [Kai] says, ‘Not another picture ...’ He’s just starting to understand. He’s not really that into football, to be honest. He likes other things.”
Rooney has not made a career out of lingering too long on the successes and failures of his 13 years in the game. Ask him about regrets and he will mention that red card in Gelsenkirchen and how he tried to get Cristiano Ronaldo booked in the first half. He hints at discontent under Fabio Capello – “tough times” – but will go no further. There is genuine delight as he recalls David James inadvertently ruining a game of Deal or No Deal devised by a masseur to break up the boredom in South Africa in 2010.
Rooney cannot remember reading out a poem he had written on the joy of playing for England to his Under-17s team-mates, although he does not deny the story revealed last week by a former coach. There are some places he will just not go and, for better or worse, he keeps the press at arm’s length. Even those of us who have chronicled his whole career.
There is one unintentionally funny moment when he is asked where he will put his golden centurion’s cap. “I’ve got a room in my house where I keep shirts and boots and stuff [on display],” he says. Someone asks him, half-joking, how big the room is, and Rooney treats the inquiry seriously. “Probably about the size of this room, but it’s split between upstairs and downstairs.”
There is a pause as 20 fraught English journalists contemplate the meeting room we are in, with a floor-space easily greater than the average semi-detached house, and two storeys high. And that’s just his trophy room? He really does have a lot to thank Colin Harvey for.
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