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A beacon of truth in a sea of lies

As an Arsenal fan, I have more reason than most to despise Wayne Rooney.

In October 2002, while still only 16, he scored his first league goal for Everton, a last minute match-winner against Arsenal, the defending league champions, ending a 30-match unbeaten run.

In October 2004, now playing for Manchester United, he won a controversial penalty against Arsenal, the defending league champions, ending a record 49-match unbeaten run.

And, in the white shirt of the national side, Rooney was most culpable for England‘s exit from the 2006 World Cup quarter-final at the hands of Portugal, getting himself sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho‘s, er, nether regions.

Then, of course, there is his more-than-passing resemblance to the animated film character Shrek, and his youthful ‘indiscretions’ with an elderly prostitute, which have made him an easy target for opposing fans up and down the country.

And yet, through it all, in an era which has seen footballers fully embrace their wealth and celebrity status, and increasingly lose touch with reality, Rooney remains remarkably down to earth.

On the field, we have seen this young man continue to fulfil the outstanding talent which was obvious in his teens. He has won league titles and a Champions League trophy – much of it playing second fiddle to the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo – and become the fulcrum around which Fabio Capello‘s England side revolves, combining tireless team player with an impressive goal-scoring rate.

Off the field, he married his secondary school girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin (with whom he is expecting their first child this month) last summer, largely eschewing the ostentation of David and Victoria Beckham and their matching thrones, the chav excesses of Ashley and Cheryl Cole, and the exclusive OK! magazine spreads which are seemingly de rigueur for celebrity weddings these days.

Equally impressive is his honesty.

Modern footballers are comprehensively trained in dealing with the media and generally successful in avoiding the kind of soundbites which can be cannily spun by an eager tabloid press to fan the flames of controversy and generate news-stand sales. Which is all well and good, but it generally means that we, the reading public, are served a daily menu of mealy-mouthed platitudes, half-truths and bland cliches which, at best, tell us absolutely nothing and, at worst, are little more than brazen lies. (For instance, how many times have we seen a player profess his love for a club and its fans, while at the same time negotiating a lucrative transfer elsewhere – and then claiming it’s not about the money?)

Sometimes Rooney’s rare honesty creates a storm in the proverbial teacup. There was the time last spring when, in an interview on Man U’s website, he commented:

“We’re in pole position in the title race and we know if we can beat Liverpool then that’ll more or less end their chances of winning the league. I’m very excited about the game because I grew up as an Everton fan hating Liverpool — and that hasn’t changed.”

Rooney was roundly criticised in some quarters for his supposedly inflammatory comments. And yet was there anything truly provocative or surprising in his statement? Here was a young man, a boyhood Everton fan and teenage Everton player, who subsequently moved to Manchester United, a club with whom Liverpool have a long-standing and intense rivalry. He was hardly going to profess his love and respect for the Anfield side, no more than you would expect a Scotland fan to wish England well at a World Cup.

And, this morning, it’s interesting to note the British media running ‘Rooney says World Cup would be better without Ronaldo’ headlines ahead of England’s qualifying group match in the Ukraine tomorrow.

Read Rooney’s comments and you will see that there is no spite, jealousy or desire for revenge here. He readily recognises Ronaldo as the best player in the world. But when asked how he feels about the prospect of Ronaldo’s Portugal and Lionel Messi‘s Argentina failing to qualify for next summer’s tournament in South Africa, Rooney avoided the obvious suggestion that the World Cup should not be deprived of the presence of the world’s best players, and instead focussed on the fact that the absence of two of football’s top countries can only enhance England’s chances of winning:

“It’s great that Argentina are struggling. It would be nice to see Portugal not there because in the last two tournaments they’ve knocked us out.”

Quite right too.

As an Arsenal fan, I have more reason than most to despise Wayne Rooney. And if I’m being honest, there is a big part of me that does despise him for being a constant thorn in the side of the team I support. But there are also times – when he runs his heart out in an England shirt, and when he chooses to speak his mind – when there is much to admire beneath the surface in the conduct of a player who, at first glance, lacks the gleaming smile and touch of stardust of, say, Beckham or Michael Owen.

The comparison of Wayne Rooney to Shrek is an obvious one. But, in this sense, it is also a favourable comparison.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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