The problem with Wayne Rooney is that we remember what it looked like he was going to be. At Euro 2004, when he picked the ball up against Croatia and surged forwards midway through the second half there was a tremendous feeling of inevitability. Sure enough, from just outside the box he struck a low shot that beat Tomislav Butina and doubled England's lead.
We'd been through something similar with Michael Owen. England was used to solid, hard-working international players, or robust forwards. When Owen scored that goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, aged 18, though, it seemed that we had one of the geniuses that other nations always appeared to have. He could be, in stature and impact if not in style, our Matthaus, our Del Piero, perhaps even our Maradona. But by 2004, when he was still only 24 -- no player, surely, has ever seemed so old so soon -- Owen was fading. He had had his moments, of course, the hat-trick against Germany in Munich in 2001 and the two goals for Liverpool in the 2001 FA Cup final against Arsenal most notably -- but it had become apparent that his one great gift was pace and that a series of hamstring injuries was gnawing away at that, dragging him down from the realms of the exception to the merely good.
But Rooney was something else again. He wasn't as fragile as Owen. He was tough as well as skilful. Playing behind a main center-forward meant he was more involved in the general player. He was a creator as well as a goalscorer. He could dictate games in a way Owen never did. Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England manager, compared him to Pele and it didn't seem totally ridiculous. At that moment in Lisbon, it felt probable that England would go on to win Euro 2004. It even took the lead against Portugal in the quarterfinals before disaster struck.
Jorge Andrade trod on his foot. It seemed innocuous and was almost certainly accidental, but Rooney went down and stayed down. He limped off and it was soon confirmed that he'd broken a metatarsal. He didn't return until the end of September, by which time he'd moved from Everton to Manchester United. His debut for Sir Alex Ferguson's side was spectacular, as he scored a hat trick against Fenerbahce in the Champions League but the truth is he has never quite been the same again. Medically, perhaps, he is precisely as he was before the injury -- although he broke metatarsals twice more in the following three years -- but some of the wonder went from him that night in the Estadio da Luz. That, perhaps, was his stage and he was denied fulfillment by a moment of awful ill fortune.
That Rooney isn't Pele is clear, but what is he? Like Owen, he seems to have aged quickly -- perhaps a consequence of starting out so young. There is a theory that players have about 500 games in them: it's a necessarily rough calculation but essentially if you start young you tend to finish young, the body worn down by the attrition of constant playing and training. Rooney's underwhelming display in England's 3-2 friendly win over Scotland on Wednesday was the 562nd appearance of his career. He looked sluggish, as was only perhaps to be expected after a preseason interrupted by injury and transfer speculation.
But it was hard to equate the huffing, puffing, frustrated figure at Wembley with the energetic youth of Lisbon. Rooney these days seems to play with a permanent scowl, as though he knows he isn't living up to expectations, that he never became Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. To an extent, it's because he is a different type of player. At his best, he has an admirable selflessness, a willingness to chase back and win the ball. A lot of players play like frustrated center-forwards; Rooney often seems as though he's a frustrated full-back. He will play wide or deep and he will track. His temper still occasionally overwhelms him but from a tactical point of view he is -- when engaged -- impressively disciplined. One of the reasons United has been able to get away without a really dynamic central midfielder for so long is that Rooney, from a second striker position, performs a ball-winning function. But there are also doubts about how carefully he has looked after himself off the pitch: had he shown the dedication of, say, Ronaldo, could he perhaps have been great rather than merely very good?
The rumors that Ferguson felt Rooney was expendable had surfaced last season even before he left him out of the starting lineup for United's Champions League tie against Real Madrid. The revelation in Ferguson's final program notes that Rooney wanted a transfer merely confirmed what had already seemed likely. Yet those notes now seem odd: perhaps Ferguson thought he would take the pressure off his successor, David Moyes, by demonstrating Rooney's departure had been agreed upon before he arrived at the club, but all that happened was that a messy saga was played out in public.
Rooney, it appears, will now stay at United, differences patched up, it's hard not to suspect, in the fact of the reality that United wouldn't sell to a Premier League team and no foreign side wanted to take a risk on a player who shows little sign of being at home outside the northwest of England. Perhaps he will enjoy a resurgence under Moyes -- and it is worth remembering that, while the perception was of a season of moderate performances, Rooney did score 12 and register 10 assists in 22 Premier League start last season -- but this feels like the beginning of senescence, Rooney's long trudge towards a retirement in which we think what a player he was and yet how much greater it seemed he could have been.