Like most things with Wayne Rooney, his reckless dismissal on Saturday grabbed the headlines following Manchester United’s narrow victory against West Ham. It was a pity, for United produced a performance of incisive attacking football for an hour before Rooney’s red card elicited an impressive defensive resolve to keep West Ham at bay for the remainder of the match.
Kevin Nolan’s late offside ‘goal’ has predictably been pounced upon by certain sections of the press who are ever keen to promote the notion United frequently profit from favourable officiating, but the main talking point of the match was the impetuous swipe of Rooney’s boot towards Stewart Downing. Rooney is the main talking point? Nothing new there then.
It has been that way for some time and the division he generates shows no sign of abating. There was even a split between fans on whether the red card was deserved, despite it being clear-cut, something even Rooney has conceded.
In the previous match, in amongst that pitiful collapse to Leicester City, lingers one memorable image – an exasperated Rooney berating his team-mates following Leicester’s equaliser. It was another moment that was dissected in detail.
Immediately, there were two opposing viewpoints. The first was that Rooney should have been commended for his actions, exhibiting a captain’s passion and desire not witnessed since Roy Keane was in red. The counter-argument claimed the outburst was ill-timed and thoughtless for condemning error-strewn defending in which he himself was complicit and for failing to recognise a calm head was sorely needed. It required an injection of composure rather than a blast of invective.
Both sides of the arguments had merit. Both could have been pulled apart. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s notable though that, like his red card against West Ham, it’s another example of the continued micro-analysis of Rooney’s actions in a United shirt and the conflict he creates amongst the fans. His elevation to the captaincy has only further strengthened the discord.
The stark truth is, despite endless hype, Rooney is not the United hero he should be. Looking at cold hard facts, he should be universally acclaimed as a player who has been at Old Trafford for over a decade, who possesses the highest profile of any member of the team and is comfortably on course to become United’s greatest ever goal-scorer.
Yet adulation of him is far from unequivocal. Opinions of him cover the whole spectrum. He attracts devotion and derision in equal measure. Considering his status, his record and his obvious qualities, it is, when you step away from it for a moment, a strange (and unique) state of affairs.
It hasn’t always been the case. To discover the origins of such a passionate divide, it’s worth going back four years to 2010 when he first asked for a transfer from the club.
His flirting with the exit was out of the blue but it did not last for long. When he abruptly withdrew his request and instead committed to the club by signing a new long-term contract, it was met with a collective sigh of relief. The whole incident was unsavoury but leaving the anger and disillusionment aside, his unexpected desperation to leave had provoked panic amongst almost everyone connected with United. That includes staff, players and fans alike for he was the talisman of the team at the time.
If the request was sudden, the u-turn was equally as swift. The speed of the process undoubtedly assisted by a substantial contract being waved under his nose and a pledge that the club would remain competitive. Both United and Rooney quickly moved on. His desire to leave, though not forgotten, was buried deep enough into the subconscious to rarely warrant another mention, until the landscape began to change.
At some point in 2011-12, Rooney’s form slipped from the high standards he had previously established, allowing an inconsistency to filter into his performances. Whilst remaining a highly-effective player and still a prominent figure in the team, his crown began to slip. The debate and discussion about that ill-fated transfer request, buried for so long, started to float back to the surface.
Following that season in the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson snapped up Robin Van Persie, a remarkable signing with an intriguing sub-plot. Would he be able to play alongside Rooney rather than instead of him? Initially, the answer was a resounding yes. Though the partnership was intermittently broken up by niggling injuries and tactical tweaks, over the next few months the two players started to gel in a way that, whilst not delivering instant fireworks, promised a great future.
The exact point the cracks started to show is hard to pinpoint. Most people highlight the Champions League quarter-final against Madrid. In the first leg, Rooney was asked to do little more than plough up and down the right wing, his performance mainly used to negate the opposition rather than harming them. In the return leg, his role was reduced even further. With considered planning, Welbeck was selected ahead of him, forcing Rooney to the bench and depriving him of exactly the sort of stage he craved.
It was a night that appeared to have lasting consequences with Rooney’s relationship with the club but whatever faith Ferguson had lost in the player, that match was the outcome of it, rather than the inception. It had begun much earlier, the previous season even, when he often shunted Rooney out left to accommodate others or drop him deeper into midfield despite the player openly declaring his desire to operate as a striker.
If Rooney had fully convinced Ferguson in that forward role, he would have been a fixture in that position with the rest of the team re-shuffled to accommodate him rather than the other way round.
Ferguson was always an advocate of his No.10 working tirelessly to close down the deep-lying playmaker of the opposition, something at which he felt Rooney had become unreliable and publicly declared Welbeck to the best player at the club at that particular function. Against Madrid, with Xabi Alonso pulling the strings, it was telling that Welbeck was trusted to clamp down on the Spaniard rather than his previous go-to-man.
From that point onwards, Rooney’s form continued to falter. Moments of brilliance, interspersed with sloppy passes and mis-controls. He continued to contribute and, as usual, provided a valuable goal return. For a player on world-class wages though, it was difficult to argue he was playing like a world-class player.
At the end of Ferguson’s final season came the thunderbolt. Not from Rooney’s right boot but the manager’s mouth; Rooney had, once more, asked to leave the club.
The truth of that conversation may never be known, with some viewing it as a transfer request while others refuse to believe it even occurred. Considering Rooney’s silence on the matter, the truth is likely to fall somewhere in between. Either way, with Ferguson stepping down, it clearly wasn’t irreparable.
Upon taking over, David Moyes immediately made it clear he held Rooney in high regard and point-blank refused to entertain the idea of selling him to an eager Chelsea. As became the norm, Moyes pandered too much to the player’s whims but United remained defiant about Rooney staying. However, his silence caused nothing but doubt. The lack of transparency on the matter provoked endless rumours until eventually the window closed and his continued presence at the club was finally confirmed.
In a miserable season for United in 2013-14, Rooney started the campaign in positive form and, at least up until Christmas, generally performed better than most. It was, it has to be said, to his credit. At the time, he was clearly unhappy but did not allow it to manifest itself into a negative influence on or off the pitch. Instead he reinvested his energies into United in much the same way Ronaldo did before he finally secured his long-awaited move to Real Madrid.
Confirmation that Rooney was remaining at the club for the long-term arrived in January this year with news of another highly-lucrative contract renewal. Now, under Louis Van Gaal, he has been made captain of a team slowly evolving in quality and stature. It is quite a remarkable turn-around, from being ‘angry and confused’ just over twelve months ago to being the appointed leader on the pitch.
And yet, despite being the only realistic choice in the selection of captain, there still isn’t a player who divides the fans more. Many would still celebrate his departure from the club whilst an equal amount would be desperate for him to stay. Something that was illustrated by the disparity of views about his on-pitch rant at his team-mates against Leicester and his thoughtless dismissal against West Ham.
There’s little doubt his initial transfer request and the subsequent clash with Ferguson provided the foundations for the negativity towards him. As time moves on, those incidents naturally receive less attention but the resentment from the whole affair still rankles deep with many supporters.
The gulf in opinion is also based on purer football reasons. There is continuous debate if he is worth his place in the team. Perhaps to an outsider that seems a baffling stance. His statistics will always be the shield his staunchest supporters will use to deflect criticism. He regularly scores over 20 goals a season, produces a sizeable number of assists and he will, with increasing certainty, score more goals for United than any other player in the club’s long and decorated history. It is highly probable he will achieve England’s highest goal tally too.
Part of the issue comes, ironically, from his younger self. For the first few years of his career from 2003 onwards, he was a revelation; fast, powerful, direct and thrilling. A player to make you leap from your seat, someone capable of the extraordinary. The way he would terrorise defences was a joy to watch. It’s not only how good he was, it’s how good he threatened to be. There was conviction he would develop in much the same way Ronaldo did and attain similar footballing heights to his former team-mate.
For a number of reasons, it never happened. Rooney’s game evolved in certain areas when he became a superior goal-scorer and impressive long-range passing became a feature of his play. His abilities, though, the ones that could whisk your breath away, steadily diminished. As the seasons passed, he deteriorated in certain aspects of the game. He lost much of his pace and intensity and subsequently became a very good player rather than a truly great one.
In recent seasons that change has become more defined. For all the attributes he continues to possess, there can be a clumsiness to his play that he seems unable to prevent. He remains eminently capable of a terrific 40-yard pass or a stunning long-range goal but occasionally he struggles with more simple elements, a short lay-off or controlling the ball. His first touch, for a player who operates in such tight areas, has become increasingly erratic. It is an eternal conundrum how a player can be both very skilful and sloppy, often within the same match.
With United now possessing offensive players of such high calibre, Rooney’s presence in the team has raised even more questions, the focus and analysis even more acute on every performance he produces. It is inevitable now that high-profile players will have to be excluded from the team to accommodate him. With Van Gaal all but confirming Rooney as a fixture in his starting XI, it’s a situation that has caused significant bemusement amongst United’s supporters.
He provides an impressive goal-scoring record, occasional inspiration and immense industry in whatever role he plays but is that enough now considering United’s notable increase in quality in the forward positions?
Van Gaal has confirmed he prefers him as a No.10, citing Falcao and Van Persie as superior options in the strikers’ roles. It effectively means Rooney’s selection has been, and will continue to be, at the expense of Mata and Januzai in his first-choice XI.
Now it appears Mata will get his opportunity over the next three matches while Rooney serves his suspension. It will be an intriguing dilemma for Van Gaal should Mata thrive in the next few weeks.
It will certainly provoke endless debate.