LONDON -- Wayne Rooney's career is coming to a close. Which seems ridiculous, given that my memory informs me that it was only last week that he was being hailed as a 16-year-old prodigy with Everton. My, how time has raced by.
That Rooney had extraordinary talent was never in doubt. Everyone agreed on that. But in the early days it seemed that he might waste it all, for he started to come over as a spoiled brat who liked to argue with and swear at referees and who was inclined to moments of soccer-rage that clearly he had to rein in.
Frankly, I soon felt that Rooney wouldn't make it. He looked altogether too undisciplined. But Rooney -- however he did it -- conquered his discontents and matured into the stardom that had been predicted for him.
Well, almost. Because of all the hype, there has always been a feeling that Rooney ought to be better. And now, nearing the end of his career, he has apparently become a problem because coaches and pundits feel that he ought to be different.
Playing differently, that is, playing a different role. At age 30 he is a bit slower than he used to be, he cannot be the bundle of muscular energy of old. Or so the thinking goes. But his coach at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, insists that Rooney's best -- and only -- position is as a forward. The new England interim (which may or may not mean temporary) coach Gareth Southgate begs to differ, telling us that Rooney "can play any number of different positions and very well." While the recently disgraced England coach Sam Allardyce told Rooney he could "play wherever he liked."
For an aging player to adapt his game as the years take their toll is nothing new. Rooney has been reminded that two of his ManU colleagues -- Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs -- managed to prolong their careers by doing just that. The transformation inevitably involves a shift to a less energetic style. In Rooney's case, from a bustling goalscoring forward to a playmaking midfielder.
Definitely, we have lately been seeing Rooney more involved in midfield. But not always with great success. It is decidedly odd to read that midfield will suit Rooney because he can use his accurate passing more in that role.
A point must be made. At the very top level of soccer, the level at which Rooney has been thriving for two decades, it is -- it must be -- a given that the vast majority of the players, certainly those at the sharp end of the team, know how to pass accurately. If they don't, they would not be there.
But this is England and "accurate passing" has a special and limited meaning. It means the ability to hit a long pass accurately. That was one of the surpassing skills of Rooney's great predecessor at ManU -- Bobby Charlton.
Well, for sure, to see a 40-yard cross-field ball -- an aerial ball, of course -- pick out a teammate with pin-point accuracy is both impressive and exciting. To this day, such passes are still greeted in English stadiums with applause. That's right, applause -- not roars and cheers, but with clapping.
This almost polite reaction is incongruous these days -- but not more so than the 40-yard pass itself. That Rooney can hit such passes is not in doubt. But the value of them -- and therefore the notion that they make up a crucial part of Rooney's skill-set -- is very questionable.
He has other much more important assets. He talks sensibly about them. He told Henry Winter of the London Times: "It's obvious I'm not as quick as I was, but you can always have a football brain and I've got that."
Rooney seems to favor a new midfield role. But to have Scholes or Giggs - even Steven Gerrard has been suggested -- as role models is nonsense. The player who made the most successful late-career switch was the great Pele.
As a young player Pele was a goalscoring machine, an extraordinary dribbler, a deadly finisher. The world first saw his glittering skills in 1958 when his goals led Brazil to its first World Cup victory. He was 17 years old.
Twelve years later, in 1970, the soccer world again saw the skills of Pele as Brazil claimed another World Cup title. But these were rather different skills. Pele was now a 29-year-old midfield playmaker, a brilliant one. He could still score goals -- he got four in 1970 -- but it was his five assists that underscored his new role as a playmaker.
Pele was slower, of course he was. But did he slow the game down? I think he did, at crucial moments, when his "soccer brain," the very thing mentioned by Rooney, was working its magic. The unforgettable example came toward the end of the final against Italy, as Pele with the ball at his feet paused before rolling the ball softly and perfectly into the path of Carlos Alberto who smashed home a superb goal.
Pele's midfield role did not include long passes -- the team had Gerson to deliver those if necessary.
Rooney can now talk openly of playing in midfield -- "I feel I can control and dictate games from there." He should look carefully at the way Pele managed things -- still scoring goals, but making decisive assists, too. And I don't think he should listen to those critics who accuse him of slowing the game down.