It was past midnight on Sunday when, in one of the Grosvenor House hotel’s service corridors, Wayne Rooney was at last able to escape the crowds at the Professional Footballers’ Association award dinner and reflect on the scale of his achievements this season — and what lies ahead this summer.
The PFA players’ player of the year award is 47-years-old and it still retains the capacity to thrill the famous footballers who win it. There was something poignant about the affectionate way in which Jimmy Greaves made the presentation to Rooney, announcing third and second place before abandoning protocol and calling it “the biggest foregone conclusion — come on Wayne, come and get your trophy”.
When I finally caught up with Rooney he was clutching the trophy and looking genuinely delighted at the warmth of his reception, much of it from tables of Football League players relaxing at the end of the season with a few beers. They chanted his name as he went up to collect the trophy; it was hard to recall a more popular winner of the award.
“It is a great feeling to win player of the year, voted by all the players throughout the leagues,” Rooney said. “It is something I am extremely proud of. [Didier] Drogba has been a great player all season. [Carlos] Tevez obviously I know a lot about and [Cesc] Fabregas has been brilliant again. So to come out on top is something I am proud of.”
Accompanied by his brothers Graham and John, his brother-in-law Anthony as well as his agent Paul Stretford, this was one evening when Rooney could bask in his personal success — although the seven goals Chelsea had scored a few hours earlier just a few miles west at Stamford Bridge were a reminder that there are no guarantees he will end the season with a trophy for Manchester United.
“Of course I would swap this [trophy] right now for the league title,” he said. “You know we are pushing forward and in a decent position. Hopefully Chelsea can slip up and we will take advantage. I’m disappointed to have missed a couple of games but I’ll be fine. Hopefully I will play again before the season finishes and get ready for the World Cup.”
It is Sunday’s game between Liverpool and Chelsea that occupies United’s thoughts — they really need their oldest enemy to do them a favour and derail Carlo Ancelotti’s team’s title charge. It sounded unintentional but Rooney delivered a withering put-down to Liverpool in his acceptance Q&A with Jeff Stelling when he said that Liverpool were “still fighting to qualify for the Europa League”.
That comment got a roar of laughter but later Rooney was deadly serious about Liverpool. “I don’t think [it will cross Liverpool’s mind to throw the game],” Rooney said. “They are fighting to get into Europe and they have a history [there]. I am sure they are all determined. It is the last home game of the season. The fans won’t be too pleased if they don’t turn up.
“I don’t think I need to [have a word with Steven Gerrard]. You see what a good player he is. Even in friendly games he wants to win.”
You wonder what Rooney made of Greaves’ speech, a brilliant ramble through his playing career that loses nothing for having been told a thousand times. He talked about playing at Burnden Park in the “Drake’s Ducklings” Chelsea team of Ted Drake, when one tough Bolton centre-half would say to the other “If Greaves comes near you, can you chip him back over to me?”
As he went through the great names of his era, Greaves paused on Jimmy Adamson, the former Burnley manager. “Do you know he turned down the England job before Ramsey?
“If he had taken it maybe I’d have got a game in 1966.”
No question that Rooney will be in the England team, rather this summer will be about how his claim to be the best in the world shapes up alongside that
of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and, injury permitting, Kaka.
How did he feel about the challenge of proving himself to be the best in the world? “I hope so, because if that happens then England have to win the World Cup — so I’ll be happy on both fronts.
“But I don’t think of it [as all of England’s hopes resting on him]. There are a lot of good players in the team. If I get injured then I still think we have the players who can do the job. Obviously there is a lot of hype when I get injured but that is what you have to live with.”
Earlier in the night Rooney had touched on the changes at United that have affected him this season, chiefly the observation that he now finds himself playing as an orthodox striker — “which I have been asking [Sir Alex Ferguson] for for years, and the service has been better”.
Rooney seems confident that his ankle and groin problems are nothing to worry about, that he is ready for the summer and the challenge England face. That said, he is experienced enough to know that football throws up some unexpected challenges to even its most celebrated sons.
As the music played and they ran the footage of Rooney’s prize-winning season, you could see Greaves — a frail, small figure now at 70 — standing alone on the stage, silhouetted in the giant screens. He knows a thing or two about football’s fickle fortunes.