Imagine you had a time machine. Imagine that, forever whatever reason (I don't know the technical specs of time machines), you could only use it to travel back to the seconds after a goal in any football match ever to ask the scorer one question, and one question alone. You could go back to 1986 to ask Diego Maradona if he regretted that goal (or how much he enjoyed that other one). You could ask 2002-edition Ronaldinho if he meant to lob David Seaman. You could get Dennis Bergkamp to confirm that his touch for that goal against Newcastle was indeed an utter fluke.
The best use for the time machine this week, though, would surely involve Wayne Rooney. After he was dropped from the Manchester United side for the Champions League last 16 second leg against Real Madrid - undoubtedly the biggest game of the year - questions over his future have been doing the rounds. But the more pertinent questions concern his present - and how it compares to the expectations we had for Rooney earlier in his career.
Let's go back to October 2002. Rooney has just scored a stunner against Arsenal when we appear, with a bang, on the Goodison Park pitch. Rooney looks taken aback (Thomas Gravesen is utterly dumbfounded, incidentally) but takes the time to wonder over in the smoke. He's understandably happy; that goal capped a performance of almost indescribable verve from the 17-year-old. "Will that be the first of many, Wayne?" "Of course," Wazza quips back, showing the confidence of youth; "plenty more where that came from!"
He was right, of course. Next stop, September 2004. Rooney has put the finishing touches on a debut hat-trick for Manchester United, just days after one of the most famous transfers of the Premier League era was concluded. "You're going to be a big star, aren't you?" we ask. Rooney's smile says it all. We jump back in the time machine, nipping back to summer of the same year. Euro 2004 was the striker's first major international tournament, a fact belied by the quality of his performances. His second goal against Croatia - his fourth of the tournament - was stunning, a display of raw pace and startling composure in front of goal. We nip down to ask him: "Do you think you'll be performing on the big stage for the next decade?" Rooney laughs. "Try 15 years."
Looking at Rooney's career nine years later, what do we see? Not that cocksure, try-anything scamp that first shot onto the scene. At the time, and even during his first years at Old Trafford, it seemed he was capable of anything - the first true footballing superstar to grace these shores in the modern era. His bustling energy, technical skill and pure swagger were, in a teenager, surely ripe for development. Sure he was rash, flying in to challenges and snarling like a pitbull at referees, but that was part of the package.
In the years since, Rooney's corners have been sanded off. He accepts decisions with a stoic calm. Tactically, he's improved markedly: when Antonio Valencia bombs up the pitch, Wayne Rooney tucks in to cover; when United need someone to play on the left of midfield, he manfully volunteers. His finishing has improved. He is, in a number of respects, a better player. Yet the feeling remains: he isn't the player he could have been. He isn't even the player he once was. If we bundled Rooney and bunch of football journalists into our time machine in 2004 and released them at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, they would have laughed. Rooney benched in favour of Danny Welbeck? Come on now! This isn't the future!
You could, of course, build a wholly logical argument to defend Rooney's career to date. He's edging closer to Bobby Charlton's all-time scoring record for England. He's scored in a Champions League final and won four league titles. And he's still only 27. If you hop back in your time machine and offer those numbers to a 17-year-old kid, expect your hand to be snapped off no matter how talented he is.
Yet the numbers don't tell the whole story. Rooney, the most talented English player of his generation, has spent much of his club career in the shadow of team-mates - first Cristiano Ronaldo and now Robin van Persie. For a time, he could at least be content in the knowledge that his playing style made him a fan favourite, but that notion was put to bed by his bungled attempt to leave United in 2010.
It would be foolish to file eulogies for Rooney's career at this juncture, of course; his career could yet soar in the way that we all expected it too. But for all the achievement, for all the unselfishness on the pitch, for all the goals and assists, for all the hype, Rooney will, deep, down, know that he hasn't lived up to expectations. Whether or not a move away from Manchester United would help change that is a tricky question; he could do with a time machine or something.
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