They say Father Time is undefeated. It is. Every athlete feels it, in any sport, at all levels. In light of his recent struggles on the pitch, one wonders whether Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney has suffered a similar fate.
He’s only just turned 30, you say? That’s true. And 30 is by no means the retirement age in football. In fact, it is quite the antithesis. You could argue he should be in peak physical form. Unfortunately for the Red Devils, he’s not.
I posit to you that a player’s longevity could be judged on mileage rather than age. Rooney made his Premier League debut as a 16-year-old on the opening day of the 2002/03 campaign against Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park, and then became Everton's youngest ever goalscorer when he netted against Wrexham in the Worthington Cup.
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His first Premier League goal was a dipping 25-yard shot against Arsenal at Goodison on 19 October 2002, five days before his 17th birthday, no less; bringing an end to the Gunners' 30-game unbeaten run. Media outlets around the globe quickly took notice.
Who can forget his Champions League debut for Manchester United against Fenerbahce, where he scored that sublime hat trick? The pressure on his young shoulders was immense. If you watch highlights of him at 18, he already moved like an adult, he thought like one and looked like one in all outwardly appearance. By that mathematics, perhaps his body has outgrown his age – as it always had.
In August 2004, Manchester United paid £30 million - a world-record fee for a teenager - to acquire his services. Since then, he has won Premier League, Champions League and League Cup titles with the Old Trafford outfit. In 2010, he was named both the PFA Players' Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year.
No one is suggesting his career has been anything but spectacular - certainly not, but it is clear he’s no longer the same player that burst onto the scene and so we can’t expect the same output.
Consider when Michael Owen became a household name, scoring on his debut for Liverpool. He took the footballing world by storm at the 1998 World Cup, scoring against Argentina with what is widely regarded as the best England goal of all time. He was 18. Injuries mounted and he slipped into relative Premier League obscurity.
His excellent timing never left him and it meant he scored goals until he retired, but he had lost what had made him special; his pace. He never again played for England after 2008. He was 29.
If you look down the list of the youngest players in Premier League history, or world football history for that matter, you see a who’s who of anonymity. Matthew Briggs is the youngest ever player to have debuted in the Premier League at 16 years and two months for Fulham. He would end up making 13 appearances in between loans, before joining Millwall in the Championship and then being released from there to go to Colchester United in League One.
James Vaughan is another example. The former Everton striker is the youngest ever scorer in the Premier League. Again, injuries have been an obstacle and he played a total of 60 times for the Toffees, starting only eight, scoring nine goals over seven seasons. Not what we expected from a teenage sensation.
My point is this; Wayne has been at the top for a very long time. His longevity should be lauded. As you can see it’s not easy to stay at the top, especially when given all the tools at a way-too-early age. He’s carried the goal-scoring load at one of the biggest clubs in the world for over a decade and has been England’s main threat at every tournament since Euro 2004.
Admittedly it’s hard to accept he isn’t that rambunctious teenager anymore, terrorising the most organised of defences and scoring goals at will. He’s just not that player. Father Time won’t allow it.
But in Rooney, United still have one of the most intelligent footballing brains out there. He’s not a number nine and in Louis van Gaal’s conservative system, he hasn’t flourished. Chances aren’t created for him, possession is kept boringly long and the forward is inevitably isolated.
“Rooney is probably suffering a bit from United having changed their emphasis from ‘we will win every game because we’ve got the best players’ to one that says ‘we’re not going to lose first and foremost’,” legendary midfielder Matt Le Tissier told Sky Sports.
“He suffers because they don’t attack in the same numbers as when they believed they could outscore whoever they came up against."
“This is probably the longest slump we’ve seen. He has had dips in form before but I don’t remember him having ever struggled for this long.”
Ironically, Le Tissier played in a position for Southampton Wayne should be playing now – in behind a pacey striker. Lethargic and languid in his approach, Le Tissier was an artist with the ball. He used his mind to make up for his physical deficiencies – two steps ahead of anyone else.
Wayne Rooney is too special a talent to let his form continue to slide. He will carry the armband for both club and country for years to come. He should be entrusted by those who have always placed the heavy burden firmly on him. He will be excellent again.
The pudgy kid from Liverpool has given the country a reason to believe for far too long to be disregarded now. He will reinvent himself because that’s what class players do. I’ll be watching with bated breath to see just how he does it.