An astonishing claim accompanies Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford against Wales today. It is that he may be the greatest football talent we have ever seen, more gifted than Pele, more devastating than Maradona and, equally amazingly, more visionary than Cruyff.
This is not, it needs to be said very quickly, the legend on the calling card of a galactico's agent or publicist. It is the gut reaction of a man who in his years as a player and a critic acquired the reputation of the pro's pro, the midfield general who was always known to be as hard as he was cerebral... John Giles, of Leeds United, Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland.
"You don't make an assessment like this lightly," said Giles this week. "You think of all the great players you have seen or played with and against, from Di Stefano through Pele to Zidane, and you remind yourself of all that they had, what made them unique in their time, and then you look at this kid Rooney, who at first glance doesn't even look like a player. And when you do that over a certain length of time you don't see some lumpy prodigy who might for one reason or another burn out very quickly. You see a beautiful flower of a talent, perfectly formed.
"Then, inevitably, you worry how it might be blown away, and you would be mad if you didn't do that because there is one great problem that none of the greatest players you can think of, Pele, Maradona, Bobby Charlton and Best, even Zidane when he first started in a slum in Marseille, ever confronted. At the age of 20, which for Rooney will be in two years' time, none of them could wake up one morning with, say, £10m in the bank and think: 'Do I really need football now? Do I really want to be a player?'"
Giles' fears about the short-to-mid-term effects of the winds of circumstance blowing around Rooney were crystallised this week in the reports that the teenager's fiancée had flown off to New York for a £15,000 shopping spree. "You might say there's nothing wrong in a working class girl enjoying a fantasy," says Giles, "but you have to consider what it suggests in terms of Rooney's future, the kind of basis on which he will conduct his professional life.
"When Bobby Charlton, the purest young talent I ever saw, signed pro he was on £8 a week in winter, £7 in summer. The professional's life was clearly signposted, and you know what that life is if you're going to develop all your potential as a great player. Well, the truth is, it is quite boring, it is doing your training, getting yourself home in the afternoon, getting plenty of sleep, having maybe one good night out a week. This is perhaps not so easily done when you arrive home to find that your wife hasn't put the dinner in the oven but popped over to Bloomingdales for a little bit of shopping.
"Of course, the world has changed. Of course, we cannot take Rooney back to the days of the young Bobby Charlton. There was never a time in the lives of all the great players who preceded Rooney when they had it all made for them. Pele had to finish his career in New York, drawn by a million dollars and the chance to secure his life after the game.
"All that we can hope is that somewhere within Rooney's nature is some basic instinct to get the best out of himself on the field. Maybe he can make some sense of the circumstances of today's game. If he doesn't, the loss to football will be tragic. Yes, it is true, I don't believe I have ever seen a better equipped, more naturally gifted footballer than Wayne Rooney. He has everything you would ever want in a great player."
Giles, like so many professional observers, was no less than enchanted by the teenager's debut for Manchester United in the Champions' League against Fenerbahce, and the euphoria was not notably checked by the subsequent blank against Middlesbrough in the Premiership. "Some said that tighter marking in the Premiership will restrict him, and Middlesbrough was the evidence; nonsense. A talent like Rooney's doesn't do restriction. It might not shoot out the lights every game - Pele and Maradona and Cruyff didn't erupt in every match they played, but their presence was always huge - and in fact against Middlesbrough, Rooney played well. United could easily have scored three or four in the closing minutes. No one has ever blazed through every game he has played. The game doesn't permit that."
Certainly, Wales are unlikely to draw too much comfort from a relatively quiet showing. In whatever way the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, arranges his team around the player who in his last two full appearances for the national team in the European Championship was nothing less than unplayable for the defences of Switzerland and Croatia, if Eriksson does indeed go with Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe as the front men with Rooney in the "hole" and at the head of a revived "diamond", it will simply be for the convenience of soft-edged decision-making.
The fact is that Rooney and Owen dovetailed superbly at times in the European finals and the real issue before today's game was whether the brilliant performance of Defoe in Poland last month had done enough to supplant the currently struggling Owen - and allow Eriksson the basic shape of a much improved effort after the disaster in Vienna. All of this is, however, likely to prove academic if Rooney's talent continues to unfurl at its recent rate.
Paradoxically, it has to be said that Giles was somewhat appalled when a poll of Manchester United supporters had Rooney shooting to second place in the all-time list of Old Trafford stars after his break-out against Fenerbahce. "What I'm saying," Giles insists, "is that Rooney may well be the best talent I have ever seen. He may have the best balance, the best combination of strength and speed, and the sharpest intelligence of a player of his age at the highest level. But whether in the end he can be ranked above Pele or Maradona and the rest of the accepted galaxy of the game is something that will be decided by a lot of factors and the most vital one is performance over the long term.
"At this moment Rooney is a great player, no question. But can he become the greatest of all time? It depends on so many things. They include his friends, his girlfriend... or girlfriends, his agents, and, most of all, himself."
On one famous occasion Giles harangued George Best during an FA Cup semi-final between Leeds United and his old club, United. It was a few hours after Best had been discovered in a hotel room with a girl and been dressed down bitterly by the Old Trafford manager, Wilf McGuinness. "Call yourself a professional?" Giles asked Best after one clattering tackle. "You're a disgrace." In fact, Giles had huge respect and a degree of affection for his fellow Irishman. He saw the breath-taking scale of his talent, and admired his courage. But he also saw that the celebrity that had come to him was destroying him, ending his years of genius at least half a decade too soon.
Giles also saw early evidence that the brilliance of Paul Gascoigne could not be sustained. "I saw him receiving a prize at a national newspaper awards ceremony when he was just a kid and it seemed to me that he had fallen in love with the idea of being a celebrity. A few years later I met him again and asked him whether he was controlling his drinking, as he had publicly vowed to do. He said he was drinking just a little wine but it was early in the evening and it was clear he was already well on the way. Gazza was a great talent... but also a tragedy. He mistook football for showbiz and he didn't seem to realise that in football there are no rehearsals. Reading his autobiography, it is is clear that he never had much chance of making the most of his ability."
Most astounding in Rooney, maybe, is that in less than two full seasons he has persuaded a man of Giles' often harsh conservatism that, for all the hazards of today's football culture, the game is still capable of producing arguably its ultimate player. While so much less overwhelming than today, that culture destroyed Best, seduced Gascoigne and turned Maradona into a drug addict. So far, at full tilt, it has failed to wipe out the possibility that Wayne Rooney may be the greatest footballer of all time. Indeed, some time this afternoon Old Trafford could well be not so much a battleground as a shrine.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies