Rooney on the brink, we’ve been here before, but now it’s a matter of time
To go, or not to go that is now the question. From the moment Jose Mourinho called time on Wayne Rooney’s special privileges at Manchester United the clock began ticking on the Scouser’s Old Trafford career. The inevitable is nigh. Now the club, although not publicly, is pushing Rooney towards a more rapid exit than previously imagined. China calls; will Rooney pick up?
With the Chinese Super League transfer window closing at the end of this month the standing offer for Rooney to head east demands an answer. It is, apparently, worth tens of millions to the player and, possibly, a significant amount to the club as well. The word on the street says Rooney would prefer to wait until the summer; the club is seemingly willing to let the move happen this month. It would not only to secure a fee and get the player’s wages off the books, but signal the end of an era.
Money on both sides may dictate the eventual outcome, but so does Rooney’s diminished playing status, political clout, and Mourinho’s short-term requirements. And while the transfer business has long been grubby, the complexity of a quick move is exacerbated by thoughts of moving on United’s record goalscorer, in the middle of February, with the club still competing on four fronts. Rant considers the implications…
Show me the money
"Once considered laughable, few should now be surprised if Rooney takes up the Chinese offer. After all, the player has twice held United to ransom over new contracts."
The sums on offer would tempt many not just a player for whom peak remuneration has long been a topic of high concern. The rewards: tens of millions tax-free to join a Super League club, with the player’s representatives having already spoken to Tianjin Quanjian.
Once considered a laughable proposition, few should now be surprised if Rooney takes up the offer. After all, the player has twice held United to ransom over new contracts, first in 2010 when the player was seemingly keen to take up an offer from Manchester City, and then in 2013 when David Moyes’ desperation was expertly manipulated by team Rooney.
Should Rooney opt to leave, this month or in the summer, he would be the latest in a series of players that have embraced football’s new super-power. Few have gone for the love, not yet at least, but an increasing number of players still at their peak are willing to accept a lower standard in return for staggering sums. In recent times Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Axel Witzel and Hulk have all moved east. The Argentinean is now believed to be the world’s best-paid player, earning some £31 million per season. Rooney might eclipse that.
Riding President Xi Jinping’s love of the game, China is pursuing a state-sponsored strategy to build soft-power in the world’s most popular sport. First comes the players, then the infrastructure, and then, potentially, the 2026 World Cup, in a long-term plan to become a dominant actor in the game.
For United the financial calculation is simple. With Rooney’s contract running down – he has 18 months plus an option on a final year – the player retains little residual transfer value. Rooney’s physical decline and minimal contribution means that a large fee for a sale to a European or MLS club is unlikely, while the player is guaranteed at least £18 million in basic wages over the course of the next 18 months. Moyes’ legacy has long been destructive, but it has proven to be expensive too. It may well be that United could not only command a premium fee for a transfer to China this month, but a bonus for moving the player on during the season.
It’s about the player’s career
Since being dropped by Mourinho back in September, Rooney has rarely been top-of-mind when it comes to the manager’s attacking options. Indeed, the player has not started a Premier League game since mid-December, and has secured just 1281 minutes across league and European games this season. To put that into perspective, Rooney is just United’s 12th most-used player in the league and ninth in Europe.
Even more stark is the limited chance Rooney now has to break back into the team. The Scouser is behind Zlata Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial for a place as Mourinho’s number nine, while the manager considers Juan Mata and Henryk Mykitaryan better options at 10. Rooney could be used in wide or central midfield positions, but Mourinho’s policy on that failed experiment has already been made clear.
It’s a steep fall for a player whose ego has grown through more than a decade of lionisation at United.
In more recent seasons, Rooney has played on his seniority, first securing that hefty new contract under Moyes, and then enjoying “special privileges” as Louis van Gaal’s undropable club captain. It is fours year since Ferguson first realised Rooney’s goose was cooked at an elite level; the slide has been a long time coming.
Would Rooney consider playing out the next 18 to 30 months as an increasingly marginalised, if well remunerated member of Mourinho’s squad? The noises emanating from camp Rooney suggest not. There will be offers around Europe, including a potential return to Everton, while MLS has long been a destination for ageing Premier League stars. None offer the financial rewards available in China, but many would find a home for Rooney’s ample if declining assets.
… and United’s need
In the short-term, Mourinho insists that he wants Rooney to remain at the club, with the Reds chasing Champions League qualification and EFL Cup silverware, together with progression in the FA Cup and Europa League.
Certainly, there appears little on-pitch benefit from reducing near-term options. Mourinho allowed Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay to move on during the winter, without augmenting his squad. It already leaves the Portuguese manager with one of the thinnest squads in the top six before any talk of shipping Rooney out is broached.
Yet, reports that Mourinho has frozen Rooney out not only of the team, but increasingly his thinking resonates. The manager has little time for those who do not contribute, and unlike Antony Martial and Mykitaryan, there is little to suggest a resurgence in Rooney’s form is probable, if even possible. The player’s physical decline is years in the making, and his rustiness without game-time long-noted. The best Rooney can hope for is the odd late, potentially impactful, cameo.
Asked if Rooney would still be a United player after the Chinese window closes, Mourinho denied that he is out to remove the player from his squad. But then again, he would, wouldn’t he?
“Of course I can’t guarantee he will still be here next season,” he said. “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.
“It is not a question for me because I am happy to have him. You have to ask him, not me. I was very open with you in the answer. I don’t want him to leave.”
Then again, there is a certain appeal in moving on rapidly from the distraction that Rooney can bring. If the Scouser is an unhappy solider, it may benefit both Mourinho has his squad to remove Rooney from the front-line, lest the player’s gravitas becomes a burden where it once was a benefit. Rooney has, at least, kept his dogs from barking loudly in the press.
The politics of legendry
Yet, none of this debate takes place in a vacuum. Rooney is not just another player; not after surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 249 goals and amassing more than 500 appearances for the club. The player was once the prodigious teenager, eager to learn from the club’s elders. Now he is a revered icon within the dressing room, the face of a thousand marketing campaigns and, in the parlance of the day, a “club legend.”
That Rooney brand is perhaps more valuable in China now than it is for United. Not least with Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Mykitaryan offering ample scope for international partnerships.
Nor can Mourinho be seen to push the player out against his will. The manager’s bank of credit is not yet that rich, although the Portuguese has shown little reticence in jettisoning expensively acquired, yet failing stars during his nine months at the helm. Mourinho can be pleased with his handling of Rooney this season, easing the player out with the minimum of political blowback.
In the context, a summer move appears more likely, even if Old Trafford’s bean counters might ponder the benefits of greater rapidity.
To go, or not, might be the question. Timing is the only real answer.