‘Rooney’s that rare breed of footballer’Comment on this story
London - “I remember back in 2003 I was getting a bit of stick, and that wasn’t enjoyable. It was the first time I’d experienced it, so to win the league and end the season so strong was pleasing. It meant I’d got through it. Since I turned 30 I’ve been more consistent. I’ve had to make some sacrifices - diet, alcohol, yoga. During my twenties, the odd game I played probably better than I do now, but consistently, over the season, I’ve got better the older I’ve got.”
Those quotes are from Ryan Giggs, talking in 2009 about his most difficult time on the pitch with Manchester United.
That period came almost 10 years ago, in 2003, when he was booed by Manchester United fans and even received ironic cheers for his efforts. It is hard to imagine now but it is a short enough time ago for most people in football to be able to remember it.
It is remarkable how some perspective can throw light on a situation. We might judge people in the moment, but ultimately a 20-year career at a major club such as Manchester United is going to come with ups and downs and some flat periods of your life.
And if you wanted confirmation of that, you would only need to speak to Giggs.
Which brings us to Wayne Rooney.
Questions have been asked of him in the last few weeks. Is he quite the player he was? Is he threatened by the arrival of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa at United?
Will he perform for England in a major tournament after receiving a large amount of criticism for his World Cup performance in 2010 and going into Euro 2012 without a great deal of football?
I can remember periods of my own career when there were moments of insecurity, when people doubt you. But it’s going to happen if you spend a number of years at the top level.
And sometimes you need a period out of the spotlight to recover your fitness and for your focus to revive.
Bizarrely, the horrific injury Rooney suffered five weeks ago against Fulham might have been a blessing in disguise.
It allowed him to step off the roller-coaster and stopped people from judging him every three days on the basis of whether he was in the team or not.
It allowed him to go back to pre-season training again, as his initial preparation before the season wouldn’t have been as intense as he would have liked because he had been playing in Euro 2012.
But over the past few weeks it looks to me as if the team of physios and sports scientists at United’s fitness department have beasted him in training.
Because when he started in the Capital One Cup against Newcastle 11 days ago, I saw a lean, fit, sharp player bristling with energy and aggression, like the street kid he once was.
And he showed the same again when he came on against Tottenham last Saturday before those two great passes for Robin van Persie in the week against FC Cluj.
Footballers are at their best when life is uncomplicated and all they have to think about is the ball, the pitch and themselves.
Wayne is no different. He lives for football, loves winning matches and plays with an edge of aggression because every tackle, every challenge matters to him.
In fact, he is perhaps one of the last of a dying breed of footballers in the mould of Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Steven Gerrard and Tony Adams - players with enormous ability in their respective position but who have been formed by the upbringings in England and Ireland and by the British game to fight for every last cause.
There is brutality about him in his need to win, even in the comments he will make to teammates. He expects everything to be of the highest standard and he will let you know if it isn’t.
Sometimes in life you need to be challenged, to be thrown out of your comfort zone.
Maybe the arrival of Van Persie and Kagawa have had the effect of prodding him a little. He’s now 26, an age at which players are at their peak and are expected to dominate games. But there aren’t many players in the world at the moment who can combine Rooney’s controlled aggression with his technical ability.
The way he looks now, it could just be that the injury against Fulham has helped to set him up for the season.
And with the kind of physiological back-up and advice he has at United, there’s no reason to think he can’t go on and join the likes of Giggs in making 700 appearances for the club.
If he does do that, then he’ll probably have a few more periods in his career when he’s criticised and questioned. But at the end of it all, just as with Giggs, we might be incredulous that people ever doubted him.