Vulgarity played an important part in both men's careers
The most fascinating English footballer of the 21st century retired last Friday: Wayne Rooney. His only serious competitors, in that regard, are David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. Beckham was a gifted footballer who also became a celebrity icon. Gerrard embodied the Roy of the Rovers fantasy: a player that single-handedly carried his side to cup victories.
Rooney was a prodigy who seemed to fulfil his potential: he is the top scorer for England and Manchester United; he has won every domestic and European club trophy. But Rooney’s career was just not about the numbers. It was also about his personality, and this is an important part of why he is fascinating.
Despite being the highest goal scorer for the national team, he looked unhappy when playing for England — the stereotype of a badly-behaved Englishman abroad. His 2010 World Cup was a disaster. After a 0-0 draw against Algeria, as the England crowd started to boo in the Stadium in Cape Town, he famously turned to a moving camera and said, “Nice to see your own fans booing you. That’s what loyal support is”.
As a nation we are fascinated by vulgarity, by any individual scorning propriety in favour of bodily desires. We are the nation of John Bull, Falstaff, Boris Johnson, and Chaucer. In fact, the latter was the first person to use the word “vulgar” in written text. I think this partly explains our interest in Rooney: cheating on his childhood sweetheart by having threesomes with prostitutes; smoking heavily in the post-Wenger world of football professionalism. It was also evident in his playing style; all that uninhibited aggression.
Like many iconic figures of English vulgarity, there is also a tender side to Rooney. On the pitch, he barks at his teammates like an army officer. But listen to him in interviews and he speaks with a vulnerable, softly-spoken Scouse accent — like a repentant schoolboy after a scolding. That combination of sadness and frivolity is evident in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s’ prologue, where she expresses grief at the death of one of her husbands: “I weep algate … And with my coverchief covered my visage”.
Soon afterwards she affirms the principles of pleasure and aggression when she pursues a clerk half her age: “For certes, I am al Venerien In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien”. That mixture of promiscuity, aggression, and vulnerability is what makes Rooney a paradigmatic English vulgarian.
Chaucer created verse out of vulgarity. Rooney did something similar: out of his playing style came technical brilliance. In one particular goal against Newcastle, he had been arguing with a referee, and was about to be substituted, before he scored an excellent volley: channelling all his rage into a well-aimed shot that bulged the back of the net.
It is no surprise Rooney’s nickname is Wazza, recalling Paul Gascoigne, who also combined an earthly lifestyle with moments of footballing grace. The difference is Rooney’s were more than moments; they amounted to a career.