On a weekend of universally acclaimed sporting drama, it was intriguing to note that two sportsmen dominated the back pages. On the face of it, Wayne Rooney and Justin Rose have very little in common. On the one hand, a scouser whose career and personal life have always been played out under intense public scrutiny. On the other, a man worlds apart from Wayne, a South African-born, English golfer whose life is generally of neither note nor interest to the wider world.
Despite this, the two do share a glaring similarity. Both burst onto the early scene at an early age, showing a seemingly limitless talent. Like all sportsmen who demonstrate remarkable ability at an early age, they have been judged differently, with expectations much higher and more fervent.
Rose secured his place in the national sporting consciousness not far from Wayne, at the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. The fresh faced youngster strode up the 18th fairway, wearing a jumper endearingly too big but a grin just the right size, knowing he would finish the tournament as the highest place amateur. Then, a delightful pitch, rolling straight into the hole. A fourth placed finish at just 18. So it began. Was there anything this kid couldn’t do? When will he win a major? How many?
For Rooney, the stunning moments in the nascent stages of his career are so many and memorable it is difficult to know where to begin. That strike, aged just sixteen, against Arsenal. Euro 2004, when England seemed to have found themselves a player who could do what both Gazza and Shearer had done before.
The possibilities for Wayne, for English football, seemed endless.
What followed, for both, was a typical struggle for consistency, as Rose missed his first 21 professional cuts, whilst Rooney’s big money move to Manchester United brought awards, goals and a further glimpse at the precocious talent he possessed, but even then, suspicions began to grow about his temperament.
In many ways, the weekend past showed so much about how they are now perceived, many years down the line from those explosive beginnings. Rose showed what a consistent, level headed and exceptional golfer he has become, the spearhead of Europe’s successful Ryder Cup. Yet he still remains underrated and undervalued, given his position as England’s first major winner since Nick Faldo. His Ben Hogan-esque approach to the 18th hole in his US Open victory seemed to suggest a career finally coming full circle from that fateful pitch at the Royal Birkdale, a symbolic fulfilling of talent. There, is, however, seemingly a perception that more could have been achieved. An unfair, but unsurprising assessment given the talent shown so early.
Rooney, meanwhile, captured the headlines with a performance that many of his detractors would label as his career in a microcosm. A terrific, clinical finish to fire his time into a lead, then a moment of brainlessness. A lash of the right leg, a red card, his team’s position thrown into jeopardy.
With Rooney, though, it is impossible not to wonder whether the expectations have always been far too high. Yes, that surge of pace on the ball has gone. The temperament remains questionable, the red mist never far away. He has, however, developed into an unquestionably clinical and consistent centre forward. His goalscoring record firmly holds its own against his revered teammates. Certainly, when compared to Gazza, the last player to excite like Rooney did in those early days, it is impossible to accept Rooney’s career as anything other than a success.
Yet, like Rose, we feel shortchanged. Of course, constant negative revelations about Rooney’s private life, as well as a series of botched transfer sagas, have complicated the picture and perceptions of him, making it impossible for most fans to take to or connect with him on any level.
How history comes to judge these two sportsmen may tell us so much about how we perceive and assess our heroes (or in Rooney’s case, perhaps villain is more appropriate.)
Will, like Bobby Moore, Wayne’s off-field antics come to be seen as endearing quirks, all part of the legend of the working class lad who came very, very good on the field of play? Will he be perceived, as the statistics demand, as England’s finest goalscorer since Sir Bobby Charlton? If so, then perhaps it shows that even the most ferocious of tribal emotions involved by sport fade over time, that success will always win out.
If not, then perhaps that tells us that those demonstrate a remarkable talent and reach an elite level of performance before their career has even truly begun are on a hiding to nothing. We are perhaps all guilty of channelling too much hope and expectation into the idea of a sportsmen or woman, giddy at what they might go on to accomplish.
Indeed, maybe this is simply another example of the intensity of sporting nostalgia. Harking back to a time when all we knew about Wayne was that he had a yard of pace and an explosive right foot, when Rose was naïve and innocent to the perils of professional golf. When the dust settles, on their careers, however, both will surely be remembered as two of the most successful English sporting figures of their generation.