Give me the ball, he says. He doesn’t need to say the words. There’s an opening of the hips, a broadening of the chest, like a bird unfurling its plumage, that makes it clear exactly what is wanted, and who wants it. There’s a little glance over the shoulder to make sure he’s in as much space as he thinks he is. Now the eyes widen, the arms spread. Give me the ball, he says again with his body. And Max Lowe gives him the ball.
Then again, as anyone who has had to sit through one of his interviews over the years will tell you, Wayne Rooney always spoke the language of football better than he spoke the language of language. There’s a grammar to his shape, the little first-touch-and-look-up that you would still recognise in silhouette. Partly it’s the indelible imprint of all those years, all those games we’ve seen him play, all the times we’ve seen him control the ball on the outside of his foot and take a little look up, as he does here. The pass travels all of three yards, a simple lay-off under zero pressure that you or I could have completed. Somehow, Rooney still manages to make it look like pure velvet.
These are the moments when Rooney still makes some sort of sense to us, when it is possible to glimpse him now and see the player (or more accurately, the players) that he once was: the force of nature, the serial winner, the most naturally gifted English footballer of his generation, the kid from Croxteth who just wanted the ball. This, you suspect, is why people still queue overnight to see Roger Federer at Wimbledon or go and see the Rolling Stones: for those fleeting flashes of grace, the winding forehand or the opening notes of Start Me Up, when for a split second past and present are exactly aligned.
This is what time gives. But time also takes. And as Rooney’s Derby County slid to a routine defeat against a far superior Manchester United side, it was possible also to wonder what the point of all this was. How was it even possible that we are watching Rooney playing competitive football in 2020: this throwback from the ITV Digital era sharing a pitch with actual, current footballers like Bruno Fernandes or Brandon Williams?
It comes as something of a shock to discover that Rooney is still only 34. It is, after all, the best part of a decade since Alex Ferguson first suspected he might no longer be the force he was at United; seven since this newspaper asked what had happened to his “spark”, four since he looked so horribly off the pace at the Euros, two since he was deemed surplus to requirements at Everton and parcelled off to Major League Soccer with everyone’s best wishes. And yet, here he is: still playing, still younger than Fernandinho, Cristiano Ronaldo or Luka Modric, still decorously jogging his way through the longest footballing farewell tour in memory.
Watching Rooney for a full 90 minutes these days is a strangely surreal experience: like peering into a telescope at some distant nebula that you suspect may no longer actually exist. He spends virtually the entire game jogging around a little box in between the edge of his own penalty area and the halfway line. Occasionally the gulf in pace, in sharpness, is painfully manifest. There was a moment here near the end of the first half when he chased down Fred to thwart a United counter and failed not only to get the ball, but to grasp the very idea of where the ball might be: a tired slide tackle that almost missed the player entirely.
But then there are little touches, the little wisps of skill, the raking crossfield balls, the delicate set pieces, that remind us of what he could still do in an age before football had turned into a game of eternal sprinting. Only a couple of weeks ago here, with Derby’s game against Fulham deep in injury time, Rooney left Tim Ream for dead with a flick-turn of such untrammelled filth that it really deserved its own Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack.
United were a level above that here, but every so often he would demand possession, take a look up and transport us all back. And in those instants you realised just why Rooney was still here, in a second-tier league playing a game that has largely passed him by. You realised why he still leaves the house at 7.30am to train with players half his age earning a wage he barely needs. It wasn’t for ego, or even for glory. The ball is all he ever wanted. Give me the ball.