There are perhaps only a handful of players in world football on whom the hopes of their club side, let alone their country, depend.
Wayne Rooney is one of them.
This season, the Manchester United and England forward has reached the level of performance many had hoped he would when he emerged on the scene with a wonderful goal against Arsenal as Everton’s 16-year-old boy wonder.
For many years he has been good, very good—but this year he has been great. He is dragging United to a strong title challenge through sheer force of will, while even Fabio Capello would accept the Three Lions have no chance at the World Cup if an injury befalls him.
"England cannot afford to lose him and neither can we," Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville told The Guardian at the start of the month.
"It is there for everyone to see. He is going through a peak moment in his career.”
Predictably, considering all this, the chorus proclaiming Rooney as the best player in the world has grown ever louder. But this time it is hard to refute such a judgment, especially as the 24-year-old has led a Cristiano Ronaldo-less United better than anyone though possible and stormed ahead as the most prolific striker in Europe with 39 goals in 45 starts for club in country.
In recent weeks he has scored most of his goals with his head, showing the fruits of his offseason labour and confirming himself as a player with no real weaknesses.
As the plaudits from fans and media grow, it is not just Neville who has been happy to add to the glowing tributes.
"On current form he's the best player in the world; there's no one as good as him at scoring goals," club and country team-mate Rio Ferdinand told The Guardian in a recent interview.
Having hailed the 24-year-old’s quality, the defender also saluted his remarkable consistency.
"Wayne plays with that for Man United week in, week out, he's been accustomed to that since he was 16 years old, so the expectation is not a problem."
Ferdinand is right, the expectation is not the problem—it’s the act of playing week-in, week-out itself. At his age, England and Manchester United fans are hoping Rooney will continue playing at such a high level for up to the next 10 seasons. But a pessimist would suggest there is no way Rooney can maintain such a superhuman effort beyond the next three or four.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the former Manchester United striker who is now a coach at the club, knows better than most Rooney’s unrivalled will to win and work ethic.
“He is a manager's dream and he is hungry to win,” Solskjaer told the Press Association.
“If you put him out there one against one or 11 against 11, it doesn't matter what it is, he wants to win it. He even wants to go in goal! He just wants to win and he loves football.”
Rooney has been playing at the highest level reasonably consistently since he was 16—and even at youth level he was regularly playing two years above his age group.
For comparison, fellow England striker Peter Crouch (five years’ Rooney’s senior) didn’t play regularly in the Premier League until some way into the 2004/05 season.
If Crouch’s career arc is considered fairly average, then Rooney is clearly on an accelerated path. No wonder he is in prolific form this season—with all the miles on his footballing odometer he is effectively a 28-year-old. Unsurprisingly, most experts suggest footballers generally peak between the ages of 28 and 31.
The nearest precedent for Rooney, certainly in England, might come from another former Manchester United teammate—Michael Owen. Like Rooney, Owen burst on to the scene as a teenager, making his name at a World Cup and convincing everyone he was the next great of English football.
We all know what happened next: Owen enjoyed an injury-prone but stellar career in his early twenties—winning the Ballon d’Or in 2001—before those accumulated injuries and a few poor transfer choices (Real Madrid, then Newcastle United) saw him become a shadow of his former self.
A free agent at 30 last summer, a few media outlets even suggested Owen should retire. Manchester United’s interest was a surprise to most, and those same doubters felt vindicated when Owen was ruled out for the season after injuring himself in the Carling Cup final last month.
Rooney should avoid the second pitfall of Owen’s career—the misguided transfers—and so far seems not to have the same fragile body that let down his fellow Merseysider.
But the injury clouds—heaven forbid he is ever on the wrong end of a career-threatening tackle—are starting to darken for the No. 10. Rooney didn’t start that Carling Cup final victory (only coming on after Owen limped off) and also missed last week’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers with a vaguely diagnosed knee injury.
The cause was never admitted, but it was alluded to; having played so many games at such a high intensity, Rooney’s body really needed a break.
"It is his own enthusiasm that has caused it. His problem is that he can't say no," Ferguson bemoaned to the press after Rooney played 86 minutes of an England friendly that he was advised to miss.
"[England boss] Fabio Capello has to pick his best team. A win was important so I don't blame him at all. I was more disappointed with Wayne. Why didn't he come off? I can't believe it."
After scoring against Liverpool on Sunday, Rooney once again grabbed headlines as he left the ground limping—despite suffering no obvious injury during the game.
He has already played over 40 games this season. With an extended Champions League run and moderately successful World Cup, that number could easily extend past 60. Then he will have around a month off before gearing up to do it all again.
Not that the man himself would admit such a schedule is having any negative effect. If anything, he seems to be relishing the continual grind.
"I am enjoying my football, playing well and managing myself better and that's paying off,” Rooney said to The Times last week.
"I am not doing every training session at the moment, whereas normally I would train as hard as I can every session.
"It's not due to my knee, but I have played a lot of games this year and it is about reining myself in on the training pitch. I am getting a bit older and wiser now and it is probably the best thing to do."
And this is a forward who is still just 24. If he is missing training sessions now, how will he be in four, six or eight years’ time? Especially with only one summer off every two years (assuming England consistently qualifying for international tournaments) to recover from a regular 60-plus season of games?
The answer, unless fitness regimes dramatically improve in the near future (not beyond the realms of possibility), is not particularly encouraging.
Rooney’s fellow United team-mate, Ryan Giggs, might be the best evidence that young stars can enjoy longevity to their careers. Like Rooney, Giggs emerged as a teenager at Manchester United and quickly became a mainstay in the side. Now 36 and with 829 club games under his belt, only last year he was voted player of the year by his peers.
Like the future that looks in store for Rooney, Giggs spent almost his entire career as the great hope of his country. But to elongate his career, Giggs retired from international football at the age of 31, and in truth he had been far less of a consistent presence for Wales than perhaps he should have been. He only ever picked up 62 caps for his country—Rooney already has 58.
"At his [Giggs's] age, you're still able play the same, but you can't recover for the next game," former Welsh international Dean Saunders told the BBC after the announcement of Giggs’ international retirement in 2003.
"Instead of taking three or four days, it might take five or six days.
"He might think that if he wants to keep playing for Manchester United for another two years that he has to use the international weeks as rest."
Rooney himself has admitted that he sees Giggs as a role model:
"If I can get anywhere near what Ryan has done it would be an amazing achievement, because I regard him as the perfect role model,” he recently told United’s official television channel.
"You must have great respect for the way his life is and the way he handles himself. The things he has done throughout his career and the things he has won are unbelievable.
“Everyone looks up to him and if I even get close to the number of games he has played I would be delighted."
A similar international retirement from Alan Shearer—not to mention fellow United man Paul Scholes—elongated his career by around four years.
But neither man endured the same rigorous schedule of games as Rooney has—Shearer because his sides rarely progressed far in Europe, Scholes because he was only relatively fleetingly am international starter—and in any case, would Rooney be allowed, yet alone prepared, to make such an individual decision?
It seems unlikely.
There is a case to suggest that Wayne Rooney is England’s only true world-class player at this time, a case perhaps only Ashley Cole can genuinely contest at this time.
Rooney is clearly a once-in-a-generation footballer; one England and Manchester United are lucky to have. His Champions League debut, in which he scored a hat-trick against Fenerbahce in 2004, was a historic moment in a career that has gradually become littered with many others.
From that first goal against Arsenal, it has been impossible to shake the feeling fans have been witnessing something special.
But what has made him great, and enabled him to reach this undoubted zenith, is exactly what will prevent him from staying there for much longer than four or five years.
His passion, his hunger, his drive might well last until his fifties, but at some point like everyone else his body will fail to keep up. With all the wear and tear he has put on it in his career to date—far more than almost any of his peers—it seems almost inevitable it will begin to crumble sooner than most.
"It is hard to quell the enthusiasm of people like Wayne," Ferguson acknowledged recently to the BBC.
"He is restless. He can't sit down. He is always on the move. Even in hotels he is moving from one table to another. If we are away in Europe he is walking about all the time.
"You don't want to take away from him but age does some good things for you.
"Eventually you see you can't be doing this running about all the time. You have to take a rest sometimes."
Every Englishman must hope that proves to the case. In the meantime, they should just savour the outstandingly performances from Rooney they are currently witnessing.
Because there are no guarantees how long they will last.
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