“I don’t think Wayne was keen to play simply because he’s asked for a transfer”
Not exactly what was expected from Alex Ferguson’s final post match interview as manager of Manchester United. With that statement Ferguson had effectively hung Wayne Rooney out to dry and gave the fans the inside track as to the internal tension between the pair that had contaminated Ferguson’s final months as manager.
It was clear to all concerned that Rooney wasn’t happy as the end of the season drew near. Repeatedly substituted, played out of position, sometimes not played at all. It was quite a fall from grace for a player once touted as one of the world’s best. The question is how did it come to this? Where did it all go wrong?
The future's bright
When Wayne Rooney signed for Manchester United in 2004 it wasn’t long before the fans hailed him The White Pele. He was the heir to the throne long since vacated by an enigmatic Frenchman who led United from championship famine into the most successful period of their history. He was the player to lead United through, and out of, the Djemba-Djemba/Miller/Kleberson dark days and ultimately back to the promised land of European glory. His goals, assists and workrate were crucial to the team that won the title in 2006-2007.
However, this was also the season when a new star announced himself. Cristiano Ronaldo had gone from preening showpony to ruthless finisher and his trajectory was only upwards. Together, Ronaldo and Rooney terrorised defences, ably assisted by a strong supporting cast. But it didn’t last long.
Somewhere along the way, Rooney’s star stopped shining, or more accurately, his star didn’t shine as brightly as the Portuguese. Shunted out to the wing for the big games, Rooney played second fiddle to a man who continued to improve. Rooney appeared happy to play along, perhaps safe in the knowledge that Ronaldo was always destined to move on.
When Ronaldo eventually got the move he craved to the team of his dreams, the spotlight was back on Rooney. He flourished in it. Reverting to a true centre forward role and playing as the lone frontman in the majority of the big matches, he had his best scoring return ever in 09-10 with 34 goals in all competitions.
Then came the match that derailed everything. An ankle injury in March playing against Bayern Munich left him struggling to be fit for the World Cup. He recovered and played, but it was an utter nightmare for both he and England. They flopped – dramatically. And Rooney’s form deteriorated.
Almost overnight the burst of acceleration vanished, the ability to take players on and be successful receded a quickly as his hairline, and his first touch became increasingly erratic. The dynamism and natural instinct that defined his formative years had ebbed away. He struggled desperately for form, and in October, only hours before a Champions League tie, news broke that he had formally requested a transfer request. He claimed that the club hadn’t matched his ambitions in terms of their transfer policy and that he hadn’t been reassured that it’s long term strategic plans were in line with his own vision. Effectively, he believed the club was not going to sign players of the required standard to maintain its success.
He painted it as being ambitious, but in doing so had publicly questioned the club and the manager that had stood by him in times of personal and professional trouble. Ferguson played to the gallery and eventually Rooney signed a new contract. Awkward apologies followed but the fans were slow to forgive – not least because at one point it looked certain that he would sign for cross town rivals and nouveau riche Manchester City. His form picked up towards the second half of the season and United clinched the title.
Fast forward to 2013 though, and we find ourselves in a similar situation. Shunted out to the wing for a better player, playing in midfield to plug the holes, or dropped for a harder worker (Welbeck) in the season's biggest game versus Real Madrid. It was déjà vu all over again for Rooney, and this time he had had enough. A frank conversation with the manager led to him (perhaps flippantly) saying he wanted to leave. No formal transfer request, but the news trickled out even before Ferguson’s confirmation at the season’s end.
The irony has been mentioned previously but it merits reiterating: in 2010 the strategic policy of the club concerned Rooney so much that he wanted to leave. In 2013, the players purchased are good enough to ostracise him from his favoured positions. Van Persie is the preferred option as primary striker. If United are to play with two up front, Rooney is likely to get the nod ahead of Welbeck and Hernandez. However, if United play with five in midfield, which is highly likely, then Rooney again faces competition from Welbeck, but more importantly from Kagawa – a specialist number ten. In many ways that is the role United bought Rooney for, a role he filled brilliantly behind van Nistelrooy is his early years. However, it’s not something that he excels at anymore – the consistency in touch, control, and subtlety in his play just aren’t of the required standard.
And therein lies the rub. A player once touted as The White Pele, as a player to enter the pantheon of football greats, is now no longer considered good enough to warrant a guaranteed starting berth in the Manchester United team. This was a man that was expected to be mentioned in the same breath as the world’s football elite. If that did ever happen, the moment was all too fleeting.
The funny thing is his statistics are still encouraging. Certainly not Messi or Ronaldo like, but good nonetheless. A return of 12 goals and 10 assists in 27 league games (5 as substitute) last season is not to be sniffed at. The problem is regular observers will be all too aware of the weaknesses in his game. The inconsistency can be unfathomable, with any semblance of consistency in his game actually veering towards the negative.
No doubt his ego has taking a bruising. The man who once walked into an England dressing room post injury proclaiming that ‘the big man is back’ has been taken down a peg or two. It’s not sitting well with him and he wants out. He wants to play, to repair his damaged ego.
Now the issue is that the potential suitors aren’t exactly forming a queue outside Old Trafford. Likely destinations appear limited to one: Chelsea and the manager who thought he was poised to take over at the champions, Jose Mourinho.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of sadness about the situation. Rooney should now be in his prime. He arrived at Old Trafford young, hungry, eager. The fans took to him immediately (scouse roots and all). Until this season, it seemed obvious that he would end up United’s all time top scorer. Instead he’s moving towards the exit door for the second time in three years.
At this point maybe it’s for the best. Maybe it’s time for all concerned that he moves on. A move might reinvigorate him, it might light the fire that once led to him being mentioned as potentially the world's best. A new environment, a new manager, new teammates, and perhaps crucially, a new training regime.
Maybe that will sort his head once and for all. Maybe he’ll be keen to play once again.
My name's Dave Cash. I'm a Manchester United fan, handed down from my Father. It's my first article here, and I plan to write about the big events from the Premier League on a weekly basis - doing my best to be as objective as possible and parking my bias!