Imagine, if you can, that you are a professional footballer.

But not just any professional footballer. You’re a little pink and blue phenom, Ginger Pelé on a pushbike, sixteen and thrust into the first team, playing for your boyhood club, scoring your first league goal against Arsenal, a definitive screamer, absolutely textbook, in off the bar, to break their 30-game unbeaten run, and the Ghost Of Football Yet To Come taps you on the shoulder and goes:

You know what? This is gonna last. You’re gonna leave L4 and head to Manchester, captain United, have a decade there, winning the lot. You’ll leave as their leading goal scorer in history, and the leading goal scorer for England, too. And everyone is going to hate you. And then i

W-what?

Oh, yeah. Everyone is going to think you’re rubbish, thick as pig shit, and actively dislike you. Or, at best, not care about you. You’ll carry your club and country for years and then, when you score your record-breaking goal for England, nobodyand, genuinely, I mean thisnobody will give a flying fuck.

Imagine that. Imagine what that would do to you. Your psyche. Imagine sitting down one morning to eat your Honey Nut Clusters and thinking back at your life’s work and seeing there, in the syrupy milk, the futility of your existence. What was the point?

It’s all too easy to forget just how good Rooney was in his prime, able to channel anger and vitriol into his near-perfect technique, able to do things like fill the post-Ronaldo chasm at United by teaching himself how to become the best headerer in the league and then spend a season scoring a shitload of them, seemingly just to amuse himself.

But, in the end, it looked like even Wayne Rooney himself didn’t care. Domesticated into apathy, crushed under the weight of captaining the World’s Biggest Team™, gone was the scrappy little bastard who kicked every ball like it just snatched his mum’s purse and Rooney would drift through games looking leaden and weary, sucking play into his vortex of bleakness, dropping deeper and deeper, legs as heavy as they looked, his fuzzy thatched roof giving way once as the rain just kept on coming.

His move from United to Everton didn’t spark anything like the Roonaissance many had hoped for, and when the news broke that he was off to the MLS—to a club bottom of their conference, no less—nobody was really surprised. Off to the big retirement community across the pond. They were happy to forget all about him, writing him off as someone who simply never fulfilled his potential…

But maybe this was his potential all along. At D.C. United, Wayne Rooney seems invigorated, able to inspire and drag a team along again, like the good old days, without worrying about what everyone thinks of him. The giant billboards are gone now, leaving him popping wheelies on his BMX down the hallways of his suburban mansion, finally left to his own devices, devices of war, devices of destruction, out on the baize at Audi Field, sliding and whacking, pumping long balls and last minute winners, feeling like a young man again. It’s beautiful. It makes me happy. And he seems happy too, you know, in the American vacuum, fulfilled, where newspapers aren’t desperately griping for Roo puns, and he can just get on with his game, D.C. playing him in his best position, just behind the striker as Lord of War.

“No one wants to be near the middle or bottom of the league, and just playing for the fun of it,” said Rooney, this week. “You want pressure moments. You want to feel that pressure. And I think it’s important, what we’re doing, we’ve got that pressure but we’re thriving on it and we’re picking up results and wins.”

A recalibration of pressure inside him has worked wonders, shrinking his world down into something he can pop into his pocket, getting it out every now and again to inspect and explore, turning it on whenever he pleases. And, at the moment, he’s pleasing often, lately, as D.C. drive towards the play-offs, the only thing that matters in the league since relegation doesn’t exist, and nobody expected them to get there in the first place, so he can casually run through the highlight reelforty-yard half-volley lobs, lung-busting runs in the 88th minute, big looping Hail Mary ballswhirring away in football’s background, like the world’s best character actor, like he’s Stanley Tucci if Stanley Tucci was an almost-genius footballer stuck inside the body of Ricky Hatton.

In a few years we’ll get the tap from the Ghost of Football Past, all get to look back at the glory days of Box Office Blockbuster Wayne Rooney, the scales dropping from our eyes, seeing his debut hat-trick and the giant volley he scored at Newcastle anew, but, for now, we can settle for Wayne Rooney: The TV Show, the reboot nobody realised we needed.

(Main image: DC United / Instagram)

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