It's a debate that many a football fan has taken part in. Whilst it is undeniable that the Englishman achieved great things for both club and country - the jury is still out on whether or not he will ever been celebrated by the world game and its illustrious history in the same manner.
The Early Days
The story of Wayne Rooney is often thought of as a footballing rags to riches tale.
Born in Croxteth, a predominantly working class suburb in Liverpool, he grew supporting Everton.
Rooney’s talents have always been abundantly clear. He began playing for Liverpool Schoolboys and once scored 72 goals in a single season. Soon after graduating to play for local side Walton, Rooney went from strength to strength and netted an incredible 99 goals in his final season. With Everton scouting the region's youth leagues, his immense ability was promptly discovered and the Premier League side quickly signed him aged nine.
By his late teens Rooney was causing quite a stir. He scored eight goals in as many games during Everton’s run to the Youth Cup Final in 2002 before eventually making his senior debut in August 2002; becoming the second youngest first team player in Everton’s history - behind only Joe Royle - and also the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer.
Many aspects of Rooney's playing style were best described as 'old school.' An old footballing term referring to a traditional and often 'back to basics' approach of playing the game.
Growing up Rooney had an admiration for Brazilian striker Ronaldo and once stated "as an out-and-out forward he was probably the best.” There are some immediate comparisons to be drawn between the pair. Both had a similar stocky build and raw explosive nature - although Rooney’s directness and drive was rarely as silky or smooth as the South American.
For a large portion of his career Rooney was seen as a classic Striker. A position that has become less popular in the modern day game and one that younger supporters may be increasingly unfamiliar with.
The naming of the role has been slowly replaced in recent years by 'forwards', applied to more versatile offensive types with pace and a certain level of trickery - choosing to attack from wider areas and cutting into the penalty area on their stronger foot.
Further removed from the striker mould is 'the 'false nine,' technically gifted midfielders who drift across the length of the final third, first popularised by European sides with smaller and less domineering players. Strangely Rooney would play an early adoption of this tactic in United’s 2008 Champions League winning side, regularly interchanging with the likes of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo; a fairly dynamic system for the time.
Yet it was from the conventional striker role that Rooney would quickly establish himself as a rare talent.
Just weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Rooney announced himself to the rest of the Premier League by scoring a last minute winner against Arsenal. A long range, swerving finish that clipped the crossbar on its way into the net and ending The Gunners thirty match unbeaten run.
At the time his strike made Rooney the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history. The rookie’s year ended with him being named 2002’s BBC Young Sports Personality.
Whilst his first two years at Goodison Park were littered with fine individual moments and memorable goals, Rooney was far from prolific, only finding the net 17 times in 77 appearances.
It wasn’t until the Summer of 2004 that Rooney became a household name.
"Rooney can do the lot. Eventually he'll have all the United records."
Manchester United Legend Denis Law in September 2004
His individual performances at Euro 2004 were eye-catching. Rooney became the youngest goalscorer in the competition’s history, scoring twice against the Swiss in England’s opening group game in which his side won convincingly 3-0. He ended the tournament with four goals and was even named in UEFA’s team of the tournament.
It was the first time, yet certainly not the last, that fans beyond the English game would see his sublime skill and exciting promise. A glimpse that was enough to make Alex Ferguson sit up and take notice.
In August 2004 Rooney moved to Old Trafford for a fee for £25.6m. A move that would propel him to stardom.
“Plenty of eyebrows were raised persuading the club’s board to sanction a multi-million pound move for him.”
Whilst making an initial impact at Everton, Rooney was far from the finished article, and there was a sense that he needed a bigger stage to reach his full potential. It was at Manchester United that he began to evolve from a promising upstart and into a major power of the English game - Old Trafford was where he would find his greatest domestic and European successes.
But would his achievements for United be enough to ultimately define him as World Class?
The World Class Debate
Labelling a player as ‘World Class’ is one of the most widely contested footballing conversations. Branding any player with the grand tag isn't simple.
Judging a player solely upon his ability is not enough. When you boldly claim a footballer is a global force, there must be a consideration of his quality in the moment, but also a reflection on how he will be remembered amongst the vast history of the game.
Ask your average football fan and you'll often find three trails of thought...
First are those easily swayed. They’ll claim the latest talent is a world beater based on media hype and a handful of eye catching performances.
In stark contrast, the purists will claim that only ‘once in a generation’ players deserve the accolade.
Then there is the supporter whose thinking follows the spirit of this debate. A footballing mind with an understanding that the issue can often be highly subjective.
It is tempting to compare any candidate to players with matching tropes. Whilst this can be a useful starting point, there are numerous examples of footballers with similar qualities, yet who are remembered very differently with the passing of time.
Here at United Quota we have devised three key points to base our discussion around...
Longevity in football is simple.
Sustaining a certain level of performance throughout the entirety of a player’s career.
It is a difficult feat for any professional footballer. To play at the required intensity, display a continuous high standard of decision making, effecting key moments within a match; over the course of many years and hundreds of games.
For a goalscorer it is especially challenging.
Other positions on the field are measured differently. Goalkeepers and Defenders are often assessed over time by reflecting on their role within a whole team’s defensive record or remembered fondly for individual moments of brilliance and heroics. Midfielders are analysed in a similar way with the addition of assist records for stand out offensive players in the position.
But what about a forward like Rooney?
Ultimately - goals hold huge weight when speaking about the merits of offensive players.
But how does Rooney’s record in front of goal compare to other greats of the game?
Let’s take a look at three statistics more closely….
● Number of appearances
● Amount of goals scored
● Games to goals ratio
A player’s games to goals ratio can be a handy indicator of a forward’s quality in terms of continuous performance over time. It is a simple calculation of how many goals a player scored per game.
A player with a ratio of 0.5 (who on average finds the back of the net once every two games) is considered to be a huge successful in front of goal.
Players like Gerd Muller (Germany and Bayern Munich) and Eusebio (Portugal and Benfica) are miles ahead of the curve, registering a games to goals ratio for 0.9. Their modern day equivalents, the likes of Lionel Messi (0.8) and Cristiano Ronaldo (0.73), highlight the levels required to firmly cement a player’s World Class status.
But what about Rooney's boyhood idol? The Brazilian Ronaldo has a games to goals ratio of 0.65
Wayne Rooney’s ratio is closer to 0.43 - suggesting that he failed to sustain a level of prolific goalscoring across multiple seasons. Perhaps this fact adds fuel to the fire about how good he actually was.
But does his goalscoring record alone allow us to decide outright if he was world class or not?
Because it is worth noting that as Rooney entered his thirties, a succession of managers began to deploy him in deeper creative roles such as attacking midfielder, playmaker or even a box to box runner.
An analysis of his overall game reveals a number of key strengths that shouldn't be ignored.
Let’s explore some of Rooney’s attributes in greater depth….
Speed and Movement
Rooney’s physicality was a huge asset. Throughout his career he was often labelled as having a body type not ideal for a professional footballer. This was often shortsighted. Whilst his weight did fluctuate from year to year; sometimes affecting his mobility in his later career, Rooney’s fitness and stamina were undeniable.
"He was very stocky, he was going to have to train well all the time. Wayne didn't see the importance of the gym really. He'd say... I'm here to play football."
Former Manchester United fitness Coach Mick Clegg
The Englishman suffered from several injuries. Some question if they stopped Rooney reacting the heights of other elite players of his era. In fact Alex Ferguson is on record of having cautioned Rooney over his fitness levels on several occasions.
But it is also worth praising his work rate, a willingness to press opponents and win the ball back.
Speed And Movement
Rooney was a fast and agile player in his youth. Especially during his twenties when he averaged speeds of around 35 km/h which easily rivalled some of the most rapid and athletic players of the time. His pace was particularly explosive on the counter attack, more than able to match the speedy runs of United’s other rapid offensive players, ready to meet final balls head on.
He was a flexible attacker and capable of playing anywhere along the front line. This trait became especially potent as part of the previously mentioned 'adaptive front three' alongside Ronaldo and Tevez, a style of play that Ferguson often favoured in the final stages of his management. He was creative and energetic too; apt at finding space in central areas and driving towards the opponent’s goal to great effect.
Rooney’s shooting technique was of an elite standard. He struck the ball with power, accuracy and was capable of scoring from inside or outside the box. He registered a variety of goals from precise close range finishes, to efforts from distance and on occasion a memorable stunning volley.
Despite being of average height, standing 5ft 9in tall, he was accomplished at heading the ball.
Throughout his career Rooney scored thirty headers - accounting for nearly a fifth of total goals scored. The peak of his aerial ability fell during a prolific 2009/10 season, where his positional play and sense of awareness in the box became finely tuned.
You don’t always associate an abundance of intelligence with Rooney’s play. Yet his ability to adapt to numerous tactics and positions was notable. Although his preferred role was always as striker, he excelled as a supporting forward for much of his prime, with a selection of his finest moments coming from this era of his development.
A weaker side of Rooney’s intellect concerned a lack of discipline. Often criticised for his behaviour and aggression at times, he picked up unnecessary bookings and became involved in a handful of unsavoury incidents. But removing this intensity from his persona could quite easily have impacted upon the player he became.
Domestically Rooney became something of a legend, featuring at the top of his profession for nearly two decades.
He is the ninth highest goalscorer in the history of the English game, netting 208 times for both Everton and United with a respectable games to goal ratio of 0.42 - nearly a goal every two games played throughout his entire career.
His move to Old Trafford undoubtedly gave him an immediate platform to impress. Rooney could express himself alongside a multitude of world class players and was able to showcase all the qualities for which he would be remembered most fondly.
During his first five seasons with United he helped the club win a trio of back to back Premier League crowns, a League Cup and Champions League title in 2008.
Ironically his most successful season was 2009/2010 in the campaign immediately following the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid and with Tevez moving across town to Manchester City. Rooney became the main attacking focal point, returning to a classic number nine role for the first time since his youth and it seemed to suit him; scoring an impressive 34 goals in 43 appearances - his best goal tally in a single season.
“Wayne Rooney is a player I have admired for a long time. He is an extraordinary player with extraordinary capabilities.”
For an elite footballer based in Europe - the Champions League (formerly the European Cup) or Europa League (previously branded the UEFA Cup) are the obvious pinnacles.
When Rooney first moved to Manchester, the club hadn't featured in a European final for half a decade and looked unlikely to again for some time.
However Ferguson was already building his next great team around Rooney amongst others and a squad that would once again be able to challenge for Europe’s top honours. In 2008 - Rooney was a linchpin of the team, filled with quality and experience from back to front - claiming his first and only Champions League medal.
Perhaps if it weren’t for Pep Guardiola’s fine Barcelona team then Rooney may well have tasted European success twice more in 2009 and again at Wembley in 2011.
On the International stage, Rooney’s quality is easily on par with the high standards set by past England forwards, the likes of Gary Lineker for example who still boasts one of the best games to goals ratio of any English player (0.6) - 48 goals in just 80 caps.
As England’s top goalscorer it is a stretch to fault Rooney’s international prowess.
But it is his performances in tournament football where most doubts are raised about a lasting legacy.
Expectations of Rooney were at their highest during two World Cups in particular - the 2006 competition in Germany and four years later in South Africa. During these two tournaments, the Englishman was firstly seen as a world beating youngster and then later an established player in his prime.
His 2006 World Cup campaign was disrupted by two major issues.
Following a foot injury only weeks before the tournament was due to begin, Rooney faced a race to find fitness - and whilst featuring heavily during the competition - he was never fully fit. This coupled with his straight red card in the Quarter Finals against Portugal capped off an underwhelming display that partly tarnished his England career.
Four years later in South Africa - England were poor. Rooney performed badly too and even went so far as to publicly criticise the England fans for booing their players off the pitch.
Many of Rooney’s best achievements came during qualifying rather than tournaments themselves.
This was especially highlighted during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign when he scored an impressive nine goals.
Besides his explosive introduction at Euro 2004, Rooney scored only three goals across his next five tournaments including strikes at the World cup in 2014 and European Championships in 2016.
Rooney's forgettable displays in major Internationals and lack of impact on the world stage does continue to raise doubts as to whether he can actually be considered amongst one of the planet’s finest.
Did Playing For England Affect His Legacy?
Success beyond club level has forever been a marker of a player’s true achievement.
The fact that Rooney failed to collect a single international winners medals to go alongside his goalscoring records and club achievements has always been a huge talking point.
He performed well for his country over a long period of time, England’s all time top scorer in competitive matches, even if mainly via qualifying and non-competitive matches.
Failure to achieve more with his country is a key consideration when debating whether Rooney was World Class or not - but was his underachievement purely personal or a result of England’s lack of quality as a whole?
Because the England sides in which Rooney featured never progressed past the Quarter Final stage in six attempts - arguably his lack of goal contributions across this twelve year spell is partly to blame.
It is no coincidence that many of the greats have claimed a major international honour; including legendary figures of the sport such as Zidane, Pele and Maradona. Yet it is interesting that as you begin to descend down the ‘GOAT’ list, footballing icons who missed out on the game’s biggest prizes seem to appear lower in the ranking.
Conversations about these undecorated player’s legacies suddenly become a little cloudier.
Alternatively you could turn to Lionel Messi - who may just be remembered as the greatest talent the history of the game has ever seen. Yet his pursuit of a World Cup with Argentina looks likely to ever be fulfilled.
Will this fact tarnish how Messi is ultimately judged? Only time will tell.
Did the fact that Rooney played for England, rather than a more successful national side, lessen his greatness in the same way?
Was Rooney World Class?
“Rooney is three world-class players in one and doesn’t have an identifiable weakness.”
Rooney’s longevity is undeniable. For his club he was consistent over numerous seasons at the summit of the English game, scoring goals and influencing play across multiple campaigns.
The Englishman had a broad skill set. He was a well rounded footballer, able to adapt to several positions and fulfil different roles throughout his career.
But Rooney had varying success across the three tiers of football and this is where his overall quality is scrutinised most heavily.
Interestingly his record as a goalscorer both domestically and on the International stage surpassed many players who history remembers as World Class. At club level it is hard to argue his overwhelming success; winning eleven major domestic and European honours at Old Trafford.
It is harsh to claim that Rooney’s timeless quality and personal achievements should be overshadowed by a lack of success with his national side.
Rooney is without question one of the finest talents the modern game has had the pleasure to experience. His legacy is one to be celebrated, his greatness acknowledged by generations gone by and future lovers of the game yet to discover him.
Wayne Rooney was World Class. Although this fact was not always recognised, globally or historically within the game, his goal scoring record across two decades was exceptional. His prowess as a goalscorer and playmaker rivalled some of the greatest forwards to have ever played the game.
It was a shame the World just didn’t always get to see it.