Wayne Rooney Britain's Backstreet Boy

Injured and in doubt for this summer's World Cup in Germany, Wayne Rooney is still determined to be part of the England squad. Such drive is why the lad with the working-class roots has the potential to become one of soccer's most dangerous players.


Wayne Rooney, working-class hero.
AFP

Wayne Rooney, working-class hero.

It's just after 1 p.m. in the Liverpool suburb of Croxteth, a place that won't win any prizes for urban beauty. The local pub is called "The Dog and Gun." All that remains of its sign is the last word; the rest lies in a rubbish-strewn front yard. The door is charred and the place boarded up. At this time of day, pigeons are the only customers at the adjacent kiosk, which is wreathed in a tangle of barbed wire. The only sign of human life is a young man with cropped hair and a treetrunk neck standing outside the William Hill betting shop. He's wearing a gray tracksuit. It seems to glisten, even under the gloomy skies of northern England.

A rusty old Honda Civic, once presumably sky blue, pulls up. A girl with ashblond hair gets out. Under her parka she's wearing pink pajamas and pink slippers. "You wanker!" she yells. "You're losing our money and our kid hasn't even had anything to eat yet."

The man in the tracksuit doesn't reply. He walks towards her. She carries on shouting at him, but backpedals slightly, keeping out of range. A couple of minutes later he tosses a piece of paper in her direction. It's a £5 note. She picks it up, hurries back to her car and drives off with a smile on her face: a cross between despair and amusement. He stomps back to the betting shop.

Wayne Rooney, Croxteth born and bred, learned to play football on these streets. He was the one who got away, who escaped. He was more talented than all the others, and worked harder. But sometimes he seems nostalgic for the world he left behind - mostly of an evening in his enormous luxury home, when the quiet of their affluent neighborhood would disquiet his fiancée Coleen. "She gets scared," he told his biographer Sue Evison, "so we got a Chow called Fizz. Now I bring Coleen up to bed, and watch a DVD while she falls asleep."

Rooney never complained about sleepless nights in his Croxteth days. In fact, he never complained about anything. Not about the poverty-stricken housing estate, where the local supermarket stocks frozen food but virtually no fruit or vegetables. Not about his father, a construction worker who suffered from chronic unemployment. Not about his mother, who paid the family's bills by working as a cleaner and kitchen helper. Not about the run-down boxing gym owned by his uncle, Richie Rooney, where Wayne started training at the age of seven, and where the punch bags have taken such a hammering that they're now held together with tape. Not about his grandmother, who looked after him for most of his childhood and clouted him around his jug ears when he didn't do what he was told. And not about Merseyside's urban planners, who ostensibly forgot about playgrounds in Croxteth. When the local kids wanted a kickabout, they had to find a patch of grass on nearby wasteland or toss their coats down as goalposts and play in the street. It rains a lot in Liverpool. They usually chose the street.

So, not surprisingly, Rooney wasted little breath on recriminations when - in the 78th minute of his team's league match on April 29 - Chelsea's Portuguese defender Paulo Ferreira clattered into him, causing him to fall so awkwardly that he broke two bones in his right foot. Leading 3-0 at the time, Chelsea were just 10 minutes from defending their Premiership crown, but the fans' cheers suddenly stuck in their throats. A stunned silence settled over the crowd, a shared sentiment that England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson subsequently summed up in a single word: "Shit."

In a seismic shift, opponents and adversaries united, hostilities gave way to anxiety, concern, panic. "O God, please, not Wayne," shot through the mind of Chelsea's agile midfielder Joe Cole. There was a universal dawning in the stadium that Chelsea might have won the league, but that England had probably lost the World Cup. Since this 78th minute, a whole nation has been yearning for a miracle, pinning their hopes on Rooney's tenacity and resilience, hoping against hope that his genes and willpower will restore him to fitness in half the time required by mere mortals. Even the irresponsible journalistic hooligans from the Sun were suddenly meek as lambs, handing out bumper stickers that read: "Pray for Wayne - get well roon."

Wayne Rooney learned one lesson early on. Strength and resolve were needed; otherwise you'd be steamrollered into submission on the streets of Croxteth.

Rooney fans: Boxing genes
Getty Images

Rooney fans: Boxing genes

You have to be big and tough to survive on these mean streets. The day his son was born, Wayne's father - thrilled by his son's huge hands and ears - cried out: "Look! We've got ourselves a prizefighter!" The Rooney clan with its working class, Irish-Catholic roots had produced another slugger. Before discovering women and drink, Wayne Rooney Sr. had been top dog at two local boxing clubs, St. Theresa and Holy Name. He was an animal in the ring - more bull than butterfly. "He never surrendered," says his brother Richie, the boxing trainer, who also has short hair and the clan's trademark blue eyes. "And he always landed nice, clean blows to his opponent's face."

They don't make boxing gloves for babies. So father Wayne Sr. bought his son an Everton football shirt. When he was six months old the younger Rooney was baptized at the Everton Fan Club headquarters. Around the same time, his dad took him to the stadium to watch his first match.

Boxing genes and the conviction that life is a battlefield - where you have to accept and mete out punishment until the Good Lord sounds the final bell - were the ideal foundations for Rooney's rise to soccer stardom. In Britain, fighting spirit is still seen as the greatest virtue a footballer can possess. The South Americans might revere great technique and wizardry in their football idols, but for generations the English believed that these ball artists were degrading a man's game with their fancy footwork. Players with skills like that were treated like lepers by national team coaches. Northern Ireland's George Best, a mesmerizing dribbler worshipped by girls as the fifth Beatle, was greeted in stadiums with chants of "Georgie, where's your handbag?" The likes of Best were cannon fodder for the notorious two-footed, flying tackle, executed to perfection by sinister characters like Vinny Jones. A Wimbledon player in the 1980s, Jones once famously threatened to bite off Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish's ear and "spit in the hole." Language like this earned Jones the starring role in a video entitled "Soccer's Hard Men," a how-to guide for aspiring hatchet men: "Ideally, you should aim your studs at your opponent's Achilles," he explained with the aplomb of an executioner, adding "If you're cute, the ref won't see you." It stormed the video charts.

Like his family and most Everton supporters, the young Wayne Rooney believed that nothing in life is free, bar a hatful of problems. When it came to funds and silverware, Everton's local rivals - the mighty Liverpool - had been playing in a different universe for decades. In the eyes of fans, Everton were "so poor, they didn't even have a pot to piss in." To have any chance of survival at all, the club had to find - and nurture - its own talent.

Ray Hall has run Everton's Youth Academy for the past 11 years. Painted in the club's blue and white, his office is a prefab box at the training ground. Photos of Hall's two daughters wearing mortarboards - both have doctorates in law - adorn the wall behind his desk. The rest of the office is a shrine to the game, lined with photos, trophies, and his "Lady Luck" Chinese figurines.

Hall, whose father labored in the dockyards, is a respected figure. His pinstriped suit matches his navy blue Mercedes. Year in, year out, he is besieged by hordes of parents harboring dreams of stardom for their sons. One Monday at the end of September 1994, the Everton scout Bob Pendleton, a retired train driver, turned up at Hall's office. Alongside him were Rooney's father and the boy with the Dumbo ears. "He was shy, but when I saw that Bob was trembling, spilling his tea all over the place because he was so excited, I knew we had a very special talent," said Hall.

  • Part 1: Britain's Backstreet Boy
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