Rooney leaves with a whimper, to be remembered as one of the best
Gary Neville might have said it best: football is a cynical industry, and Manchester United is a cynical club. It’s something about the bravado and thirst for success. Past greats are celebrated, but the club moves on. Better players than Wayne Rooney have left Old Trafford; better loved players too. Gone, not forgotten, but with a focus shifted quickly. The king is dead; long live the king. Yet, history will also record the new Evertonian as one of the finest to have played for the club.
Indeed, from the moment José Mourinho called time on Rooney’s special privileges the clock began ticking on the Scouser’s Old Trafford career. The inevitable was nigh, and although all sides have kept a PR-friendly front these past few months, there is no doubt Mourinho was happy to move Rooney towards a more rapid exit than once imagined.
"Gary Neville might have said it best: football is a cynical industry, and United is a cynical club. It’s something about the bravado and thirst for success. Past greats are celebrated, but the club moves on."
Once Mourinho instigated the end-game, Rooney was mentally cast aside, rarely top-of-mind. The player started 15 Premier League games in the season just passed, playing 1900 minutes across league and European games. Or to put that in context, Rooney was just United’s 15th most-used player in the league, 19th in Europe, in the busiest of campaigns.
Even more stark was the limited chances Mourinho was prepared to offer the player to break back into the team. The Scouser ended the campaign behind Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial for a place as Mourinho’s number nine, while the manager considered Juan Mata and Henryk Mykitaryan better options at 10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic spent most of the campaign in Rooney’s preferred role up front.
With the player’s physical decline years in the making, and his rustiness without game-time long-noted, the best Rooney got was the occasional cameo. It was a steep fall for a player whose ego has grown through more than a decade of lionisation. Wealthy, but proud, Rooney was unprepared to play out the next two years as an increasingly marginalised, if well remunerated member of Mourinho’s squad.
Mourinho did little to encourage Rooney to fight on: “Of course I can’t guarantee he will still be here next season,” he said last winter. “I cannot guarantee that I’m here next week, how can I guarantee that a player is here next season? What I can guarantee is that, if one day Wayne leaves the club, it is not because I want him to leave the club. I would never push a legend of this club to another destiny.”
Although, of course, he did.
China called in the winter, but Rooney was never likely to answer. It was an offer worth tens of millions, but one that came with too much disruption for a young family and plans for an epic new family home in the Cheshire millionaire belt. Rooney preferred to wait, and a move down the East Lancs road was always the preferred option.
The end of an era was a long time coming, but it arrives with a pleasing symmetry – and less drama than once might have been expected. But, then, the narrative of Rooney’s career has always been complex. Perhaps it had to be for the leading English talent in a generation. From boy-wonder to United’s elder statesman; transfer rebel to declining force. Rooney has rarely suffered for a shortage of unsolicited analysis. After 15 years at the top, Rooney’s talent is on the wane, but his presence endured to the end
Despite the criticism attached to Rooney in a period of diminishing returns, the Scouser will end his career as England and United’s finest goalscorer. It is worth remembering more than the prosaic performances of recent seasons. More than a decade on from that 25-yard strike against Arsenal – the one that announced Rooney to the world – the striker remains omnipresent in the conversation.
Rooney is a player, and a man, whose story defies simple construct precisely because he has spent a career living with the labels attached by others: street ‘baller, working-class hero, the White Pele. Consumer of prostitutes, family man and doting father. Top scorer and want-away star. The most natural player England has produced since Paul Gascoigne; and, like the Geordie, an abuser of his talent.
He will finish his career with a series of personal and team records. Rooney’s 198 league goals place the 31-year-old second on the all-time Premier League list. He is unlikely to catch Alan Shearer’s 260, but neither will the next generation match Rooney’s feats in the next decade either. The player has scored 53 for England in 119 caps and 253 in all competitions for United. Rooney passed the 249 scored by Bobby Charlton for United, as he passed the great man’s record for England. Both are testament to his endurance and consistency.
Rooney has won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, the Europa League, three League Cups, and a Club World Cup. In 2010, Rooney was named the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, four years after he collected back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards. In 2004, Rooney was voted into the Euro 2004 team of the tournament – arguably the only successful international tournament he has enjoyed.
Yet, there is also a sense in which, despite all the records and silverware, Rooney’s promise was unfulfilled. Teenage Rooney was a scorer of great goals and even greater goals. His game was both a burst of electric excitement and, yet, refined beyond its years. On the pitch, Rooney was a man, both physically and mentally, long before he left adolescence. The player’s first touch was outstanding, despite contemporary evidence, and his vision was as finely tuned as any. Little wonder the game’s great and good saw much in the 16-year-old.
“Rooney could be another George Best, I have no doubt,” Arsene Wenger once said of the youngster. “But football is a high-level sport and you must live the life of a monk. There is only one thing to be answered – how much do you love to play the game?”
Wenger’s are prescient words, although there is no doubt Rooney loved the game once, perhaps before fame, tabloids, and money took over. Today, Rooney is seemingly weighed down, if not by the burden of a decade in the spotlight, then 15 years of pounding the turf. David Moyes reckoned the player had “gone a bit soft.”
More important, the player’s touch all but went in his final three seasons, and that burst of pace became a relic of a time past. He began fading from the game as so many in the past: a punchdrunk fighter kissing the canvas on one night too many.
It is a world away from Rooney the effervescent kid, who plucked the ball out of the air without a second thought, and curled a strike past David Seaman with rare nonchalance. It was a great moment, no matter where the allegiances lie.
Rooney’s rise to the Everton first team was no surprise though. Having joined the Toffees before his tenth birthday, he scored goals at every age group, including eight during Everton’s run to the 2002 FA Youth Cup final. A t-shirt bearing the slogan “Once a Blue, always a Blue,” worn after Youth Cup final defeat to Aston Villa, would come to haunt the player for years to come. Perhaps only now can the epitaph fit.
He made his first team début against Tottenham Hotspur in August 2002 and scored twice against Wrexham in the League Cup later that month. In October 2002, five days before his 17th birthday, Rooney scored against Arsenal. Three months later he became the youngest player to feature for England after being selected to face Australia at Upton Park in February 2003.
Euro 2004 proved a both catalyst in Rooney’s career and, not for the last time at international level, personally cataclysmic. He became the youngest scorer in the competition’s history, bagging two against Switzerland, before suffering injury in England’s quarter-final defeat to Portugal. After scoring four goals in as many matches, Rooney was named in the Team of the Tournament. It remains his finest collection of international performances.
Rooney’s star turn at Euro 2004 accelerated his transfer away from Everton in the face of a bidding war that Sir Alex Ferguson was unwilling to countenance. Newcastle United’s preëmptive £20 million bid that summer forced the Reds to stump up a record sum for a player under 20. It has been repaid many times over.
It was one of those rare transfers that brought excitement to players and fans alike. “I first came up against him when he’d come on at Old Trafford for Everton, and he just skipped past me,” remembered Ryan Giggs. “I just thought, ‘Ooh, who’s this?’ He was just 16 or 17 at the time and everyone was after him, so it was great to see him come to United.”
If any doubts remained about Ferguson’s judgement in pushing through a deal, then Rooney’s début hat-trick in a Champions League group tie against Fenerbahce ended the debate. It was a moment of pure exuberance to excite even the most cynical pro.
Rooney scored 14 more that season and took home the PFA Young Player of the Year award, although United finished third, some 18 points behind Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Yet, 2004 also proved to be the year in which Rooney first courted public controversy, with the player being forced to admit that he regularly attended low-rent brothels. That his company turned out to be a 48-year-old rubber-wearing grandmother proved all-too-entertaining for the nation’s fourth estate.
In his early career, Rooney was never that far away from scandal, whether real or drummed up by the pressing need to fill column inches. Prostitutes remained a theme over the years, as were the red cards in Rooney’s early years. Those with England, such as the one gained for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho at the 2006 World Cup, drew headlines across the globe. He earned a reputation for petulance that was very slowly shed.
Though Rooney’s quality on the pitch remained high in years subsequent to 2004, his goalscoring consistency has always been questionable. It is the failing that sets Rooney apart from the very best in his peer group, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The gap wasn’t always as stark as it is today, and some are keen to factor in Rooney’s suspiciously lax approach to physical conditioning, and a lifestyle that is not as monastic as Wenger once preached. The 16-year-old blossomed, but not as brightly as the summer of 2004 once promised.
“Wayne can go on to achieve unbelievable things – he’s got so much talent,” Paul Gascoigne once noted. “There were some things I knew I could get away with. Unfortunately, it all creeps up on you if you’re not too careful.”
In Rooney’s case the point remains unproven, although there is often a lesson in history.
For all the good, it is impossible to analyse Rooney’s career and conclude that he achieved all that he could. It is a career that fell a touch short of the standards set, for example, by his former colleague Ronaldo.
Yet, his status at United is diminished less by ‘what could have been’ than ‘what he did’ – two transfer sagas that will forever colour any discussion. The first, in October 2010, is without dispute – and drew ire from fans everywhere – with Rooney’s entourage not only playing out negotiations through the press, but leaving little doubt that Manchester City was the destination of choice.
Rooney sought to leverage the mess of the Glazer ownership by claiming the club “lacked ambition” during the height of Glazernomic parsimony. He had a point. Yet, he also lost the public relations battle because Ferguson superbly tugged at fans’ instinctive loyalty, painting Rooney as a mercenary, the scourge of the modern game, in a masterpiece of public theatre. In some quarters Rooney will never be forgiven.
Rooney’s second attempt at departure, in the summer of Moyes’ appointment, remains more opaque. No written request was forthcoming, claims the player, although Ferguson insists he “wanted away” – the same language used by the Scot three years earlier. Few doubt Rooney would have left for suitors Chelsea had United chosen to cash in.
In remaining at United through the summer of 2013, and later securing a lucrative five-year contract courtesy of Moyes’ persistence, Rooney was locked into his new role as an elder club statesmen. The effusive praise garnered during Moyes’ short reign rankled with many; as did the special privileges proffered by Louis van Gaal.
Ferguson knew. The decline had already begun. Rooney scored 19 in 37 appearances across all competitions under Moyes – 17 in the Premier League – although just three came against traditional rivals for Champions League places: one versus City in a 4-1 defeat in September 2013 and two against Tottenham in December that year. Under Van Gaal Rooney’s performance, numbers and physique declined further still. It’s a fair argument to say that the player has not truly performed for the club since grabbing 34 in the 2011/12 campaign.
"To the player, the reduced output was simply the product of an enduring team ethic. Adaptation to new expectations. He fooled few. The doubters grew even as Rooney crept towards and then surpassed Charlton’s goal tally."
To the player, the reduced output was simply the product of an enduring team ethic. Adaptation to new expectations.
“I’m sure if you follow my career over the years, I’ve always been a team player,” Rooney said during Van Gaal’s time. “I want to score goals but the main aim is to be a team player – and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
He fooled few. The doubters grew even as Rooney crept towards and then surpassed Charlton’s goal tally.
In the end, Rooney’s goals and years at United come with a caveat about his loyalty. That he wanted out and that his quality dried up is not in doubt. Whether that matters is another point. After all, the narrative of Rooney’s career has always been complex.
None of this debate ever took place in a vacuum either. Rooney is not just another player; not after surpassing Sir Bobby’s record. The player joined the club as a prodigious teenager, eager to learn from the club’s elders. He ended it a revered icon within the dressing room, the face of a thousand marketing campaigns and, in the parlance of the day, a club legend.