Wayne Rooney, hated, great

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images /

Wayne Rooney, hate absorber

Wayne Rooney may not be a world-class soccer player anymore, but he is a world-class absorber of hatred. We know this because he’s being absorbing hatred for 15 years and he still hasn’t popped.

There are a lot of reasons people hate Wayne Rooney.

One is that Manchester United aren’t as good as they used to be, and he’s the easiest player to blame. Another is that he’s spent much of his post-Alex Ferguson life trying to reinvent himself as a kind of late-career Andrea Pirlo, which wouldn’t have made much sense even if he were good at it.

Then there’s the fact he’s the England captain, so on top of all the people who hate him because he plays for Manchester United, which is most people in England, there are all the people who hate him because he plays for England, which is everyone in England.

And on top of that he recently drank alcohol in public, which is not something the England captain (who as a rule must be treated as if he were a special kind of subhuman [unless it’s Bobby Moore — he’s alright]), is allowed to do.

Rooney also once asked for a raise, and even threatened to leave Manchester United if he didn’t get one. And he slept with a prostitute while his wife was pregnant with their child, which is an actual bad thing he did, and strangely the thing he seems to be hated for least of all.

And he got a hair transplant some years back because he was losing his hair and I guess he decided instead of having hair on only some parts of his head he wanted to have hair on all parts of his head. And even long before that, when he still had a full head of real hair, he decided to move from his boyhood club to big, bad Manchester United, because that’s the sort of club where corporate-friendly dreams are made, which, over a decade after Rooney left Everton, are the only kinds of dreams this sport has left to offer.

He’s also never exactly seemed like the sharpest tool in the shed, or the brightest bulb in the box, or the reddest devil in Manchester, or whatever you want to call it, and I think that’s added an extra dimension to his qualities as a hate receptacle.

And it’s another strange curiosity of Rooney’s career that he has almost never been the main man. Not really. Not unequivocally. First, there was Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Then there was Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez and even Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie. And now there is Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. Rooney, all too fatefully English, was so often the easiest guy to hate. And so he was hated.

At first, hating him was fun. To watch a teenage Wayne Rooney was to be simultaneously thrilled and furious, to hate on the very edge of your seat. Over time, hating him has become simply easy.

But a funny thing happened between all that hatred: Rooney was great.

I remember watching Rooney’s first goal as a United player, and his second, and his third. I remember them because he scored them all in the same match, his debut, as an 18-year-old, in the Champions League.

That’s not something that’s typically done. And yet there he was, doing it.

As the saying goes, when life gives you the seething, self-righteous anger of an entire nation, score some goals.

To top it all off, as a final shot at a world that has learned so effortlessly to hate him, on Saturday Rooney became Manchester United’s greatest ever goal scorer.

As far as soccer clubs go, Manchester United is as big as it gets. The names Rooney has now surpassed — Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, George Best — are players people who are still alive literally tell their grandchildren about. These are names history will never forget.

And now Rooney’s is among them, and it feels … well, how does it feel?

Because his career has been fizzling out for several seasons; and because we have so many bad opinions about what it must be like for a man who was once the most thrillingly talented player in the world to lose that talent, touch by touch, yard by yard; and because of United’s general state of post-Ferguson malaise; and because the goal that broke the record was an equalizer and not a winner; and because it came at the Britannia and not Old Trafford; and even because it had seemed like only a matter of time — because of all that, the goal itself didn’t feel especially momentous.

So perhaps it bears repeating: Wayne Rooney has scored more goals for Manchester United than anyone in history. This is an astonishing achievement. Truly.

I hope everyone who has ever hated Wayne Rooney watched him score his 250th Manchester United goal on the weekend, and I hope they watched his post-match interview, in which he seemed tired and a little confused and disappointed and generally as if he was struggling to process the situation, and I hope they saw that beneath the seven miles of shit we have collectively piled on top of him these past 15 years is a real life, human man, who has now, it is my great pleasure to say, broken one of the most prestigious records in all of sport.

Weekly Awards

The Claude Makelele Award for Underappreciation: Alex Iwobi

Alex Iwobi is 20 years old, which is worth pointing out because he has been so consistently good and reliable for Arsenal since working his way into the first team last season, it seems as if he is 30 years old. He hasn’t received the attention or acclaim of the Premier League’s other notable youngsters, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling and even Ross Barkley. Possibly that’s because he’s not English, or possibly it’s because his passage through the Arsenal academy and into the first team was so seamless as to be completely unremarkable. He doesn’t score a ton, but he’s just there, always, in the right place at the right time, contributing. He makes good decisions on the ball. He covers a ton of ground without the ball. And he’s 20. 20-year-olds are supposed to be idiots. And no seems to be talking about him. Maybe that’s a product of the fact he plays for Arsenal, who it has become unfashionable to compliment, but in a team with more attacking midfielders than anyone could possibly know what to do with, he’s an essential cog. Alex Iwobi has got it. Show him the love he deserves.

The Mark van Bommel Award for Getting Away With It: Kyle Walker

I’ve never really liked Kyle Walker. He spends most of his time using his freaky pace to make up for positional errors, which is doubly annoying because it has the effect of highlighting the pace and de-highlighting the positional errors. It’s like the outfield equivalent of diving for the cameras. But after what he did to Raheem Sterling at the weekend, I’m going to have to revisit my opinion of Walker. What he did was shove Raheem Sterling in the back at the exact moment he was about to shoot, and probably score. I suspect there are deep sea fish that saw that was a foul. In 100 years time, they’re going to show children videos of it to explain to them the meaning of the word “blatant.” And he got away with it! And then Tottenham equalized!! And Walker got the assist!!! Give that man a medal.

The Kieron Dyer Award for Worst Fight: Charlie Adam vs. Paul Pogba

I dislike Charlie Adam. He was okay when he was playing for Blackpool because he had the underdog thing going for him, and that was nice. But since he moved to Liverpool and then Stoke and especially since he’s limited his game exclusively to playing 50 yard passes and fouling people and then screaming at the people he’s fouled, I’ve just had enough. Like Kyle Walker, however, he redeemed himself a little at the weekend by getting in an altercation with Paul Pogba. It was nothing really, but it was nice to see the world’s most expensive hashtag forced into the indignity of a shoving match with Adam, who looks likes he spent three days in a box car to get to the Britannia in time for the match. It’s one of the great pleasures of the modern, hyper-corporate game to watch the players people care about get fouled by players no one cares about. No matter how rich you are, no matter how many hashflags have been created in your honor, you can never truly escape. There’s always a Charlie Adam somewhere, just waiting to two foot you in the neck. The beautiful game indeed.

The Tony Yeboah Award for Having To Be Hit IV: Chris Brunt

I don’t know if they’ve got any statues outside of the Hawthorns, but they better make room for one for Chris Brunt. His goal against Sunderland was stunning. Nacer Chadli hit the bar and the ball rebounded to Brunt about 16 yards out and, with like 1000 players strewn on the floor between him the goal, Brunt kicked the amazing grace out of the ball into the top corner. I don’t know if I’ve seen a better connection all season. My goodness.

The Duncan Ferguson Award for Headers: Andy Carroll

If there is any sight in soccer that manages to combine so many disparate feelings into one as the sight of Andy Carroll hurtling himself in the general direction of well-hit cross, I haven’t seen it. It’s terrifying and exciting and hilarious all at once. He throws his body around like a child in a bouncy castle. Except he is a very enormous child with a beard and a forehead made of solid gold.