Wayne Rooney’s testimonial match against Everton on Wednesday evening will mark the beginning of his thirteenth year at Manchester United, the club he joined as a precocious, prodigiously talented 18 year old for nearly £30m.
His impact was immediate, a delicious hat-trick plundered on his debut against a hapless and helpless Fenerbahce at Old Trafford. Twelve years on, and now thirty years old, Rooney has amassed 245 goals for the club in 520 games, leaving him five short of United’s most prolific goalscorer ever, Sir Bobby Charlton, on 429. He has won the Champions League, the World Club Championship, five Premier League titles, the FA Cup and the League Cup, and his total of 53 goals for his country make him England’s highest ever goalscorer. On paper, Rooney should be a United legend, a deity, potentially spoken of in debates about his club’s greatest ever players, or perhaps its most influential. His contribution has been immense.
At thirty he should be at his peak, but instead he has become a polarising figure, the focus of resentment at his past decisions and criticism of his waning powers. Twice Rooney considered leaving United. On the first occasion he (or his agent Paul Stretford) flirted with Manchester City and the player cited fears about the direction of the club under the parasitic Glazer family. In theory his logic was sound, as he had witnessed from the inside great players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez leaving, replaced by budget options in Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan. Meanwhile, tens of millions of pounds were being funnelled out of the club’s accounts every year to service and refinance the vast debt mountain piled onto the club as a result of the new owners’ leveraged takeover. Rooney’s refusal to sign a new deal as his contract moved towards its expiry and the flirtation with City provoked the fury of many United fans. Their anger at this ‘betrayal’ was no doubt inflamed further by the fear of the club losing its last remaining offensive superstar to their monied and increasingly powerful city rivals. We will never know whether his motives were as stated or whether the whole affair was about money, but twenty-four hours later Rooney performed a dramatic volte-face, proclaimed that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake and signed a bumper new contract. The affair had echoes of Steven Gerrard’s abortive move from Liverpool to Chelsea, but whilst the Anfield Scouser regained the adulation of his club’s fans, many have never felt the same again about Rooney.
Entrenched negative attitudes were brought to the fore again in 2013 as Rooney once more sought a move as his contract moved closer to expiry, this time expressing a wish to join Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The Portuguese was a long-time admirer, but United under David Moyes dug their heals in and refused to sell. The player remained professional throughout, but the following February was once again rewarded by a huge new long term contract, tying him to the club until the age of 33. Fans at games continued to sing Rooney’s name and respected his contribution to the history of the club, but many, particularly on social media, expressed their lack of affection and even utter disdain for the man, regardless of his achievements.
His past has created a strange environment for Rooney at United, at least for those on the outside looking in. His testimonial game has once again prompted passionate discussion about his achievements and whether he deserves to be idolised as one of his club’s greatest players. The waters have been muddied further by his slow, painful decline as a player. The explosiveness and physicality that made him such a phenomenon has slowly left his stocky frame, exposing the technical issues that his other attributes sometimes masked. Fergie was well aware of his waning forward as he moved towards retirement and the two clashed as difficult decisions had to be made. David Moyes put his full trust in Rooney and was rewarded with exceptional performances from the player in his first few months at the club in an otherwise wretched season. But as winter turned to spring his contribution declined and he has never consistently performed at that level again.
Aware of this decline Louis Van Gaal experimented with his captain in midfield, a position Rooney had once said he would not be willing to fill, except in emergencies. Not oblivious to the increasing limitations of his body, the player accepted this role and performed adequately there. Last season the Dutchman used Rooney as a striker for much of the campaign, but the magic had gone. There were glimpses of old, particularly his contribution in the 3-3 draw at Newcastle, but the season was a struggle, and with Marcus Rashford bursting into the first team out of nowhere, Rooney eventually found himself back in midfield. He spoke about accepting the need to play in a deeper role where he could dictate the tempo of a match, but once again adequacy was the norm.
The problem with Rooney as a player now is that a goal or a rare moment of genius often obscure the negatives: the poor first touch and wayward passing and the desire to always play the ball diagonally wide. He can be having an absolutely appalling game, but score out of nowhere or create a decisive chance, thus reigniting the argument that he still has much to offer. In the FA Cup final, with United staring defeat to Crystal Palace in the face, it was the captain whose surging run past four defenders and cross created the equaliser scored by Juan Mata. United’s most recent friendly against Galatasaray demonstrates the Rooney paradox. His touch, passing and overall contribution were dreadful, much as they had been in England’s Euros defeat to Iceland, but in the second half he appeared in the box to deftly convert a cross to equalise, before slotting home a penalty to put his side ahead. Are the long periods of substandard performances and the knock-on effect of that on the functioning of the team as a unit worth the ‘out of nothing’ potential that he provides in any game?
That now is a question for Jose Mourinho. In a fascinating first press conference the new United manager was scathing of Rooney as a midfielder, suggesting that he himself could spray passes around as the player does from deep positions under little pressure. He vowed that Rooney would only be used as a number 9 or 10, or as a ‘9 1/2’. Against the Turks he started as a 10. With Rashford and Ibrahimovic filling the centre forward birth there appears to be little chance of regular starts there, so Rooney must now make that number 10 position his own. The problem he has is that for the first time in three years he has real competition for his place in the team. Mata was impressive as a substitute last Saturday and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is accomplished either wide or behind a striker. What’s more, he now has a manager with the ego and self-confidence to bench a club icon, something which some United fans have craved for some time. There are, however, others who feel that he still has much to offer this new look side.
His past indiscretions and declining influence thus created a strange atmosphere around Wednesday evening’s testimonial against Everton, a match which should in theory be all about honouring one of Manchester United’s most influential players, the man who will surely this season surpass the great Bobby Charlton in the scoring charts. And for many it will, a sentiment which is echoed by this writer. There will, however, be many who use it as an excuse to open old wounds or, at the very least, once again voice their dislike of or distaste for the man. In addition, at thirty years old and for the first time in his career, Rooney faces the prospect of no longer being the first name on the team sheet, as Louis Van Gaal specifically stated that he was. He must prove his worth for the first time since he arrived as a fearless 18 year old. Perhaps he will rise to the challenge and prove the doubters wrong, although it would require a significant improvement on his form of the last two and a half years. On the pitch Rooney has the chance to remain relevant. Inside Old Trafford his name will be sung and his achievements and contribution celebrated, but there are many fans for whom Rooney will always be viewed with suspicion and distaste. It’s a shame, because he has given us so many wonderful memories and perhaps, off the pitch at least, it is time for the critics to give him a break. He made mistakes in the past, but then haven’t we all?