Wayne Rooney has now left Manchester United and rejoined Everton in a move designed to pull on the strings of the hardest of hearts. The prodigal son returns, in a wave of pyjama-wearing emotion. It’s a lovely story. And now the columns about where he will play and how well he can do can start to be written.
This has been happening to Rooney for a while, of course. People have been asking those questions since around the time Sir Alex Ferguson made him relearn his trade as a striker then signed Robin van Persie to replace him. His is a complex lot.
In fact, there were questions about Rooney long before that. People began to speculate about the level he could eventually hit when he electrified the football world back in 2004, making it look like England might actually win an international tournament. Would he live up to his staggering potential? Now his time at the very top has clearly past the question becomes, “did he?”
My argument has always been that Rooney’s career can help teach us that paradox is a fundamental part of the experience of life. Physicists debated for a long time over whether light was a particle or a wave and it turned out in the end that it was both depending on circumstance. Rooney became top scorer for club and country and won everything the club game has to offer, thus clearly fulfilling his potential, but his spell at the top of his game was, in truth, relatively brief and since around the time he injured his ankle against Bayern Munich in 2010 he has never been quite the same, thus perhaps intimating that he never quite became what people hoped he would—at least not for long enough.
But of course he has, paradoxically, created some magical moments since 2010. The overhead kick. The half-way line goal against West Ham, the run in the FA Cup final in 2016 where he somehow conjured 2006 Rooney out of the ether to help win the one trophy that had eluded him so long.
And this is something else Rooney’s career can help teach us. As with life in general, the past and the future are often primary considerations for football fans. Rather than being in the moment, we look back on great triumphs and bathe in the nostalgia of heroes past or we obsess over transfers because of the potential they offer for a bright future. We see Marcus Rashford making the kind of impact he has made in his young life and wonder what level he will eventually attain. Last week my attention was drawn to the fact that Manchester United’s most retweeted ever tweets are the announcement of the Paul Pogba signing and now the announcement of Romelu Lukaku’s arrival. The thing that people have engaged with most didn’t happen on the pitch at all.
But, of course, the reason that we watch football is for what happens on the pitch. And Rooney’s career is a testament to the power of football to drag us out of our concerns about the past or the future into the moment where life is truly lived, the present moment. The best footballers have the capacity to slice through our usual preoccupations and concerns and experience brief moments of transcendence. It happened at Old Trafford this season when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored his scorpion kick. Rooney made it happen time and time again; the chip against Portsmouth, the AC Milan goal, the overhead kick, the debut Champions League hat-trick.
The Newcastle goal.
The Newcastle goal when a man took all his pent up rage and frustration and channelled it directly into his talent and made every single person that witnessed it snap out of whatever else they were thinking and experience the precise moment in which they were currently living.
A photo has been doing the rounds on social media of United’s 2007/08 squad. They are all presented in black and white except Michael Carrick who is the last of that squad still at United with Rooney’s departure. That too reminds us of the value of appreciating the moment where possible. Like when Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes retired, or even more obviously when Sir Alex left, Rooney’s departure marks the end of an era which, while it was ongoing, felt like it would never end.
But in football as in life, everything eventually ends. The players who can make us experience the moment are precious and maybe we should try and spend a little less time thinking about what they were or worrying about what they might become and spend a little more time appreciating them for who they are right now.