When the conversation topic turns to footballing legends, those that spring to mind are generally the quintessential one-club men – Francesco Totti, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard, for example. None of these players had entirely unblemished careers by any means, but they were unanimously adored by fans for their unrivalled loyalty and dedication.
Despite over a decade of success, and his recent surpassing of Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal-scoring record, Wayne Rooney is a player that has yet to convince everyone that he is a true Manchester United legend. The debate as to his status at the club has intensified following his late goal against Stoke, with many claiming that it has established him as one of the club’s greats, an undisputed icon. Some even went as far as to call for a statue, while others expressed an element of indifference for a player they feel is undeserving of such high praise. With all of his achievements and all of his undoubted talents, why then is it that Rooney’s reputation has often proved so divisive amongst both Manchester United and England fans?
Arriving on the scene as a 16-year-old with Everton, ending Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run with a superbly taken long-range effort, it wasn’t long before the imminent sense of a frenzied storm of anticipation began to appear on the horizon. “Remember the name, Wayne Rooney,” Clive Tyldesley excitedly exclaimed as the wide-eyed and (relatively) innocent youngster’s shot flew past the imposing figure of David Seaman. As a commentator almost synonymous with the at times delusional English obsession of a successful national team, it was fitting in a way that it was Tyldesley who introduced Rooney to the impending barrage of media attention.
Of course, there was a sense of anticipation amongst the public as well. This was a player that could potentially become a world-class number 9, a rare commodity in a sea of mediocrity. By the time he had signed for Manchester United in 2004 for a then huge fee of £27 million (expensive even today for an 18-year-old) Rooney had effectively been made into a celebrity.
Unlike former Manchester United player David Beckham, this isn’t something that Rooney has thrived on. Whereas Beckham embraced his own brand and used the media attention to his benefit, Rooney, with his reserved, working-class demeanour, has done almost entirely the opposite.
In his 20s, under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, Rooney was unarguably world-class for Manchester United. As the spearhead of teams capable of bewildering, breathtaking counter-attacks, he was as prolific as he was industrious, and contributed to the Red Devils’ unerring dominance of the Premier League in the latter half of the 2000s.
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But he had earned a reputation as something of a troublemaker, regularly disputing decisions with referees, as well as a perhaps unfair assumption that his IQ was on the lower end of the spectrum. Incidents like his sending off against Portugal in England’s quarter-final World Cup defeat in 2006 only served to enhance some people’s judgments.
Plenty of the most revered players in football’s history have had a rebellious streak, but Rooney’s was often seen as nothing more than pent-up aggression. And, as clearly the most talented attacking player in England’s squads for most of the major tournaments in which he has been involved, he was often made the scapegoat for the national team’s much-discussed underachievement.
Then there were the nicknames, most famously ‘Shrek’. Being compared to an inherently disgusting, vomit inducing, green ogre, can’t have been particularly uplifting, but fortunately, this didn’t extend to the confines of Old Trafford, which still echoed with the chants of “Rooney, Rooney, Rooney”. In a way, though, the endearingly created title of Shrek was indicative of what seemed like a fairly common feeling of animosity towards Rooney. ‘How could this spud-faced simpleton be so good at kicking a ball, and why does he not look like a young George Clooney?’ seemed to be the general viewpoint.
Rooney has often overcome his doubters with his performances on the pitch, although there have been times when even United fans have doubted his sincerity. In 2010, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that he had asked to leave the club, a dispute that was considered to be over contract negotiations, and there were rumours of his desire to leave before David Moyes’ tenure began.
Supporters are, by their very nature, opposed to players abusing their position at a club to simply enhance their financial situation, and understandably so, but, with such longevity there can often be a fleeting desire for change. Even Gerrard, an unwavering servant of Liverpool throughout his esteemed career, has admitted that his head was turned once or twice. Nevertheless, some of the United faithful see Rooney’s brief desire to exit as something unbefitting of a legend.
As Sir Alex put it in his 2013 autobiography: “With the fans there was a residue of mistrust. He was fine as long as he was scoring, but in fallow times there was perhaps a stirring of the old resentment. Players can underestimate the depth of feeling for a club among fans. Some of them have been behind the club for 50 years so when a player is deemed to have shown disloyalty, there is no messing about with them.”
Rooney, though, was undeniably instrumental in one of United’s most successful and entertaining sides, and despite some occasional periods of tempestuousness, has ultimately remained loyal. But it is in recent years that, for the first time, his ability as a player has come into question. It can be easily forgotten that he is just 31, the same age as former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, who continues to score at a prodigious rate and looks at the peak of athleticism and fitness. Rooney, meanwhile, has clearly declined severely in physicality, which led to his apparent reluctance to continue as a striker.
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His retreat into midfield brought with it an inevitable reduction in goals, something United fans would likely have found perfectly acceptable had he turned out to be equally as adept in the role. Rooney has struggled to recreate himself as he had anticipated, however, failing to become the short-term replacement for Paul Scholes as he may have hoped. His ambitions might have been to earn himself a reputation as a master of two trades, understandably given the excellent range of passing he demonstrated even playing as an out and out striker, but it has ultimately led to a certain level of obscurity.
New manager José Mourinho, despite often singing his praises, has utilised him predominantly as a substitute, and in a number of different positions. With United increasingly pursuing a Galáctico-esque transfer policy in order to regain their place at the top of English football, Rooney’s future in the first team could well be in doubt. There have been mini resurgences this campaign, and signs of life, but it appears to be the case that he has simply started his natural decline as a player earlier than most.
Given that he began his career at the top level so much earlier, there is no shame in that – not everyone can be as indefatigable as Totti after all. As proven against Stoke, he still has something to offer his club of 12 years, although many wouldn’t begrudge him a move to America or China in the foreseeable future, which has become something of a rite of passage for top players in their twilight years.
But the question will still remain. Has Rooney done enough to be considered a Manchester United legend? Premier League titles, FA Cups and a Champions League win are amongst the enviable honours he has accumulated, and it could be argued that he has simply been a victim of his own success, and United’s decline as a club since Ferguson retired.
As a player who has prompted so much debate and been so divisive, it’s unlikely that it will become clear until the dust has settled what the general consensus amongst United fans really is. No doubt those that find the Rooney of present frustrating will look back in years to come at the now immortalised overhead kick goal against the city’s most heated of rivals, or his hat-trick in an 8-2 win over Arsenal, or his resilient, battling display against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final, and perhaps discover a renewed admiration.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gerd Müller and Ian Rush are some of the names Rooney now sits alongside as the record goalscorer for one of Europe’s elite clubs, and while he may have taken more games to do it, there is no doubting the significance of the achievement. “It is an amazing feeling,” he told BBC Sport. “It was a proud moment to be able to share that with my children.” Rooney can also claim to be England’s record goalscorer, and although some of those goals came against San Marino, it is a feat that cannot be ignored.
He’s no longer the player he once was, but is it the length of the impact a player makes or the level of impact that is most important? As legends go, Rooney certainly wouldn’t be the most conventional, but then, none of them really are
By Callum Rice-Coates. Follow @Callumrc96