Rooney has been replaced. He looks on grim-faced as the young pretender relishes the opportunity and rapidly graduates from little known understudy to the main event whilst the team’s former talisman looks on. Rooney faces the reality that his best days are past. No longer do his team mates and supporters entrust him with their hopes and dreams. As much as they revere the part he has played in the club’s history; it is clear to all that the future belongs to others.
Fortunately for the man who goes by a teenager’s nickname, the Rooney in question is Jack rather than ’Wazza’. This scene from Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday plays like a disconcerting premonition of things to come for United’s number ten.
Like Jack, having got used to being the main man, Wayne has found his billing reduced. Not only has Robin van Persie usurped him as the team’s star attraction, but both Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have in the eyes of many fans emerged as the men most likely. Like in all his films, Stone’s message lacks subtlety but rings true regardless. Everyone can be replaced. Today’s star can become Yesterday’s man before he even knows it.
In Wayne’s case, you can inevitably trace the beginning of his fall from grace to that distasteful episode where in league with his agent he either a) extorted the club or b) took on the Glazers, depending on your view of the man. Regardless of the motivation, his appeal for the acquisition of world class talent has both enhanced the team and diluted his influence. Proven high quality arrived in the form of Robin van Persie, along with potential greatness in De Gea, Jones and Kagawa. The last title-winning side – so reliant upon its talisman – was remoulded, no longer centred upon Rooney. He is not alone in finding himself a functional sentry where once he was a centurion. Both Nani, and even Valencia , have found themselves at odds with the manager’s tactical vision.
To describe Rooney as having a poor season would be ridiculous. He provided a staggering number of assists, delivered a reasonable return in front of goal and earned plaudits for his willingness to adapt to deeper roles. This last element is where the questions lie. Arguments rage over Rooney’s potential to become a central midfielder but the fact these debates continue as he finishes his eighth season at the club is proof of the state of flux in which he finds himself. In the wake of Ronaldo’s sale, expectations rose that Rooney would fulfil his promise to emerge as a player equal to the greatest in world football. For a time he threatened to do so; memorably eviscerating a Milan side who had no answer to his combination of explosive power and intelligent movement. This was not to be sustained, as inconsistency in performance (if not output) convinced his manager to look elsewhere. The call for more goals to fight back against City brought a new face rather than a renewal of faith in the existing star. To paraphrase OFSTED, Rooney has been ‘good, with outstanding features.’
Should Rooney have become the player we hoped? Perhaps we asked for too much. The teen prodigy has edged close to becoming the record goalscorer for one of the world’s greatest clubs. Precious few precocious sportsmen have ever gone on to fulfil the lofty expectations lavished upon them – I give you Robinho for example. Yet like Robinho, the suspicions remain that lifestyle choices away from the field have undermined his achievements on it. None too subtle regular references to his ‘conditioning’ suggest his manager agrees. Even those Reds who defended his actions in the contract saga could not defend his return from the summer clearly overweight. We hoped the arrival of RvP and Kagawa would fuel his appetite to prove his worth, but sadly it seemed only to have fuelled his appetite. On the field Rooney has cut an unusually isolated figure at times this season; appearances punctuated by unforced errors and the now familiar throwing up of the arms when things don’t go his way. Life on the football field frequently looks a chore rather than the pleasure it once was.
Apologists might point to his manager as the reason for a failure to press on. The tombola has forced Rooney to play markedly different roles from week to week. It is an oft heard lament that Rooney’s selfless flexibility has been exploited at the cost of excelling in one particular role. ‘He can play anywhere’ is meant as a compliment, yet the great players don’t. For them it is an endorsement of capability as oppose to a statement of intention. Robson and Keane were both praised as such yet positional changes for those two only came in the darkest of injury crises. The reality for Rooney is that despite being given opportunities to establish himself as both a striker and a creator, he has not convinced his manager of his ability to excel in either role. In the two biggest matches of the season, he was used either as a grafter or not at all. As much as supporters tried to underplay the significance of both selections, the inescapable fact was that Wayne Rooney is no longer considered essential to success. The era of ‘the big man’ is over.
The perverse reality is that in the month that he has added yet another title to his burgeoning collection, Rooney is perceived to be mulling over his next move. Stay, sign a new deal and fight for his desired place? All power to him if he does, but Ferguson’s fluttering of eyelashes at Dortmund’s lethal Pole don’t suggest a man preparing to restore Rooney to frontline service. Nor does the pointed praise of Kagawa and promises of a big future ahead suggest Rooney’s future role will replicate that of his shirt number. An alternative then is stay, sign a new deal and continue to serve in a variety of roles. Those who claim that Rooney could convert to a champions league quality central midfielder after ten draining years have admirable faith I sadly lack. His expensive use of the ball and frequent heavy touch don’t meet the criteria for the mobile, technical number 8 Ferguson craves.
The real alternative could be out of Rooney’s hands, yet ruefully I feel it best for the player and most probably the club. His contribution to our club derserves respect; at times he has carried us. Yet despite the occasional moments of brilliance; the consistent excellence that characterises the true greats has proved elusive once again this season. If a suitor is prepared to cross the Glazers palms with sufficient silver; a new club, with a new manager, could be precisely the fresh challenge needed to make the next five years of Rooney’s career the peak rather than the epilogue.