The Lost Innocence Of Wayne Rooney: The Last Street Footballer

With his career in England slowly winding down, Conall Cahill reflects on the earlier years of Wayne Rooney.MANY of us who love the game of football have always been able to see a part of ourselves in Wayne Rooney. Any of us who learned to love the game, not through the twenty-four hour overkill of Sky Sports News or the anal dissection of every mistake, but through the constant and beloved kicking of a ball against a wall or the endless battles with other kids.‘Street football’ had a predictable and set hierarchy to it and the constitution was either the football or your age. Older kids, or kids who owned the actual football, controlled the terms of the game, often in a dictatorial manner. Anyone who didn’t toe the line risked not being allowed to play or being shunned the next time the prospect of a game reared its head.
“His raw power, his skill, his audacity to go for the shot – all of these spoke to an incredible future in the game.”
There was a certain ruthlessness in the picking of teams, too – being one of the first chosen was always an honour that lightened the step until the next game came around, while to be picked last was a crushing blow that could put you off your game for days, weeks even.But the love of it would always draw you back.The lack of street football is something Irish legend Damien Duff has decried, himself an result of such a sporting upbringing. Perhaps it is the various technological distractions available or maybe there is just less room on the streets. Nevertheless, there remain generations who remember those glorious evenings when the final whistle would be a parent calling over to bring you in for dinner or to finish your homework.And that is why, on the 19th of October, 2002, when a sixteen-year-old Wayne Rooney picked up the ball forty yards out from the Arsenal goal, turned with an exquisite touch, took two more touches and curled an extraordinary shot into the top left-hand corner of the net, evading David Seaman’s outstretched fingertips and ending Arsenal’s thirty-game unbeaten run, anyone who had ever been a street footballer rejoiced.For Rooney (described by then-manager David Moyes as “the last of the street footballers”) had just taken street football and planted it right on the biggest stage in the world. His raw power, his skill, his audacity to go for the shot – all of these spoke to an incredible future in the game. The willingness to shoot spoke of a confidence borne from endless hours of practise and torturing lesser opponents at youth level – but it also somehow symbolised a joy for the game and for being able to express oneself with a ball at your feet. A joy we have all felt, at one stage or another.Today there are podcasts, YouTube channels, TV channels and websites devoted solely to Manchester United. In the wider media, newspapers are under more pressure than ever to battle for survival. And in the online and social media world, there is a never-ending fight for clicks, to get the most shares and views and to be the first to show the world the latest funny video or controversial tweet. And it’s somewhat of a pity that Wayne Rooney operates in this world.
“Being one of the first chosen was always an honour that lightened the step until the next game came around.”
Now, we cannot ignore the fact that Wayne Rooney as a brand is worth millions and Rooney has benefitted enormously from the commercial opportunities that have come his way as one of the best players of the modern age. But he must wish at times that he could go back to being that kid on the street, whose only worry was losing his ball into a neighbour’s back garden or breaking somebody’s window with an errant shot. Because back then, all anybody ever expected of Wayne Rooney was that he would enjoy playing football. Even when he scored that goal against Arsenal and the world was told to “remember the name” by commentator Clive Tyldesley, his world remained a largely simple one. But as he grew as a man and as a footballer, as he moved to Manchester United and more was expected of him, more and more voices have emerged to distract Rooney from what he does on the pitch.Of course, Rooney hasn’t helped himself at times. But how he must wish he could exist in the era dominated by figures like George Best, the trace of which is largely whispers and black-and-white photographs. When there was at least the semblance of a line between the football pitch and what occurred outside of it.Rooney has called his treatment over the past couple of weeks a “disgrace”, and any reasonable person would probably agree with him – perspective has been thrown out the window. How far we have strayed from where it all began for Rooney, for all of us. When all there was, all that mattered, was a ball, four jumpers and the picking of the teams.