Brendan Crossan: Refusal to live quiet life is catching up with Wayne Rooney
“When you dance, you have to pay the fiddler. That fiddler always has his hand out. And I did a lot of dancing.” - Jimmy Slattery, light-heavyweight contender in the 1920s
WHEN Wayne Rooney was thrust from the bench in the 63rd minute against Arsenal last Saturday afternoon, the Old Trafford crowd chanted his name.
It was their way of showing solidarity with their striker against the tabloid media’s perceived haranguing of him for being pictured drinking - and trying to play the piano at a stranger’s wedding - in England’s team hotel until five in the morning.
Rooney had injured himself by stepping on a water bottle in the dressing room after England’s World Cup qualifying win over Scotland and the injury ruled him out of the friendly international against Spain the following Tuesday.
Despite the supportive chants that descended upon him last Saturday, Rooney looked like a player that hadn’t got a leg under him. Soon after making his entrance for the out-of-sorts Anthony Martial, United went in front.
Juan Mata’s supreme finish was not inspired by the mere presence of Manchester United’s fading star as the team already had momentum before Rooney trotted onto the field.
Watching Rooney play these days is a sad sight. That spark, that rage which he relied upon so heavily during his career, left his marrow some time ago.
He’s the oldest of 31-year-olds. Even though he was fresh, he struggled to break into a sprint during the half-hour he was on the field against Arsenal.
Although it is a thankless task for a lone striker to shuttle between opposing defenders, Rooney simply didn’t have the energy to execute it. The Arsenal defenders passed around him with ease knowing that the United striker didn’t have the legs to put any of them under pressure. And when the ball was played neatly into his feet, he lacked the strength to hold off the attentions of Laurent Koscielny.
Five years ago, Rooney would have thrown the Arsenal defender around like a rag doll. Not any more. He’s a striker that looks and feels vulnerable on a football pitch.
Of course, nobody does soap opera better than the England national team. After his late-night/early morning drinking session, it was everybody’s fault except Wayne Rooney’s.
Through familiar off-the-record channels, Jose Mourinho blamed the English FA and members of Gareth Southgate’s backroom team, some of whom were sharing a late-night drink with the player, for not looking after Rooney better.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher blamed the FA and the media. So, too, did Chris Coleman. Earlier in the season, Ryan Giggs tried to rationalise Rooney’s physical demise by saying he felt “sorry” for his former Manchester United team-mate and that he was “confused” because Mourinho had played him in different positions.
Just last month, Giggs wriggled out of answering a direct question about whether or not Rooney should be dropped by England manager Gareth Southgate. An audible cringe was heard in the studio.
Wayne Rooney has friends in high places. The old pals act insults people’s intelligence. There is no rationale either from an England or Manchester United perspective to keep selecting Rooney. Doing so merely holds back the career of young players like Marcus Rashford and puts tactical restraints on the team.
Jamie Carragher has been one of Rooney’s biggest supporters in recent months. He continually puts forward cases that are built on sand. The more he defends Rooney, the more ‘old pals act’ it sounds. His protestations are certainly not built on reason.
A couple of days ago, the former Liverpool defender took to Twitter: “He’s not lost his pace or sharpness because he’s drinking until 5am but because he’s played over 730 games!!”
One exclamation mark was more than enough. But of course, Carragher and, indeed, other TV pundits conveniently truncate the debate and package it in their own isolated terms.
Even a cursory glance at the Rooney archives would show he is paying for his candle-burning lifestyle. He regularly returned for pre-season training overweight, with Alex Ferguson left with no other choice but to not pick him in the early stages of league campaigns until he shed the unwanted pounds.
On holidays, via the prying lenses of the ubiquitous paparazzi, Rooney would be pictured smoking cigarettes. The sad fact is that Rooney hasn’t made the necessary changes to his lifestyle in order to prolong his playing career.
He continues to make the mistakes of the past. ‘What’s wrong with having a few drinks in the team hotel and letting off a bit of steam?’ has been one of the refrains of the last week or so.
The answer, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with letting off a bit of steam. Not if you’re playing well and are in tip-top condition. The only sure thing that insulates a footballer from ridicule is performing between the white lines. But if you’re not producing the goods on the pitch and you’re physically diminishing quite rapidly, then you have a problem.
When you’re fighting PR battles with the press - apologising one minute and outraged the next - a player’s focus is not where it should be. Clearly, these are the actions of someone who is trying to distract from his own deep-seated failings as a professional footballer.
Searching for sympathy won’t turn Wayne Rooney’s fortunes around. At this stage, nothing will. The fiddler always comes back with his hand out.