Early England retirement sets Wayne Rooney's greatness in proper context
When you're anointed at 16 and thrive long enough to live up to the hype so that the world realizes you're for real, a funny thing happens. You still give off your own light but mostly, you reflect that which is cast upon you by others -- others who inevitably see you in the simplest terms and in the most convenient definitions.
As long as you're meeting the expectations thrust upon you, it's fine but once you start coming up short, opinion starts to split. Your weaknesses and failures get magnified; at the same time, your cheerleaders crank up your strengths and achievements. Wayne Rooney has been balancing on that pinhead for the past decade, once his fallibility became clear and he became simply an outstanding footballer rather than a perennial Ballon d'Or candidate.
The bile with which he was attacked for shortcomings in his private life or rash decisions on the pitch went beyond that served up to run-of-the-mill celebrity footballers. Sure: he made some poor choices, behaved irresponsibly and, at times, cynically. (Note his transfer request to leave Manchester United... which was never about money, of course, until he got a fat new contract.) Still, it felt as if some took it personally that he never became what they thought he should have become, some kind of Croxteth-made blend of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In his final years at Old Trafford, things changed again. This was supposed to be the prime of his career and yet -- a little bit like another precocious phenom before him, Michael Owen -- it was anything but. Again, he was stuck between those who wheeled out his record and those who believed that cosmetic fixes (giving him the captain's armband, showing him faith, letting him play in midfield) could solve the underlying issue.
Maybe what he needed most was a change of scenery and thus far, returning home appears to have provided it. He scored in each of Everton's two league games and on Wednesday, he announced he was retiring from the England side.
Just how permanent a retirement it really is remains to be seen. But for now, it can only be a positive that he has left the England circus behind him to focus on the next chapter of his career. After 53 international goals and 119 caps, he's served his time.
His goal for Everton on Monday night was the 200th league of his career and in that sense, it acquires a symbolic significance. Not because folks can now start wondering if he has a shot at breaking Alan Shearer's Premier League goal-scoring record of 260. That mark is a sham, just like most "Premier League records." Football did not begin in 1992 and the fact is that Shearer scored 283 top-flight goals in his career: it's just that 23 came before the Premier League began. Rather, it's significant in the wider context of English football.
Rooney ranks 27th all time in the scoring list of the English top-flight. Strip out the pre-war goal scorers -- it was a very different era and games were simply higher scoring back then -- and he's 10th. He's still 157 goals behind the legendary Jimmy Greaves (and 83 behind Shearer) but if he scores again, he'll match Denis Law. And if he can conjure up another 33 goals out of his thirty-something body he'll be fourth, ahead of Ian Rush and behind only Nat Lofthouse, Shearer and Greaves.
Because the fact of the matter is that Rooney is not, and was never, about goals. The fact that he scored so many is, frankly, incidental to his greatness. For much of his career, he played alongside great goal scorers, most of them genuine central strikers: Kevin Campbell, Duncan Ferguson, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Robin Van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to name a few.
The fact that he was so prolific without being (for most of his life) the prime offensive terminus is a testament to what he was in his prime: a hugely well-rounded attacking player. Indeed, when I think of Rooney at his best, it's the one from seven to 10 years ago that comes to mind. That version of Rooney pounded the pitch mercilessly, a force of nature on and off the ball, while also showing subtlety and selflessness. Goals -- though he scored plenty -- were a bonus. They're not what made him great; they're what made him greater.
Truth be told, his skills probably started to decline before his scoring abilities did. How much of it is down to injury, how much down to miles on the clock (he has played more than 750 competitive games for club and country), how much is the fault of changing managers and how much some of his own mistakes is impossible -- and perhaps irrelevant -- to know.
What does matter is how he writes the next chapter of his career. And how he can reinvent himself as a key player, one aware that his body and athleticism aren't what they were but is nevertheless capable of making a difference thanks to his technical ability, footballing instincts and the experience gained over a lifetime in the sport.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.