Now it’s different. Van Persie’s form – and the quality of our other forwards – has meant our dependence on Rooney has diminished. If he doesn’t make the starting eleven, there’s far less outcry than before, even leading to a few whispers that we could sell him. People have questioned how good he actually is. It’s not helped that his performances have been inconsistent this season. He seems to be easing into form in these last few weeks but at times this season he’s been less than convincing.
He remains our most high-profile player – at least partly due to the tabloids’ inclination to go doe-eyed about anyone English who can kick a ball without falling over – yet he can divide opinion. I believe the majority of United fans still recognise his qualities. A few go as far as to laud him as world-class, but there is also a minority who consider him over-rated and would rather cash-in and use the funds elsewhere.
Let’s rewind a decade or so. Wayne Rooney was only 16, yet he was one of the all-time greats before we had even clasped eyes on him. The media nodded knowingly about this young player before he had even burst onto the scene. When his debut for Everton arrived, it took one smart turn and a simple lay-off for Alan Hansen and his mates to become smitten. We were in the company of greatness. Don’t waste your time making up your own mind. There was no debate about it. The pundits said so.
Then came THAT goal. So good it requires capital letters. On 19th October 2002, Rooney curled a twenty yarder into the top corner to defeat a commanding Arsenal side and David Beckham was instantly shoved aside to allow our new great hope through. Euro 2004 was on the horizon and now we had someone else to unfairly pin our unrealistic hopes on.
As it turned out, Rooney shone. He lit up the tournament in the way we hoped he would. He was fast, powerful, skilful and direct, and watching England had not been that much fun since a blistering Michael Owen flew past static Argentineans. When he nodded in against Switzerland for his first England goal, he became the youngest player ever to score in the European Championships, until an even younger Johan Vonlanthen netted for Switzerland a few days later. Incidentally, this prompted my favourite ever Beckham quote when he was asked how Rooney felt losing his record as the youngest scorer. Beckham replied, “Obviously he’s disappointed but I know it won’t be long before he gets it back.”
After the tournament, Rooney’s star was on the rise. Clubs from all over Europe were circling around Everton but it was Newcastle who jumped first, causing United to wake up, swat them away, and secure his signature. The stage was set.
His first match would have been dismissed by Roy of the Rovers as unrealistic. Returning from a prolonged lay-off, he made his debut against Fenerbache and promptly scored a hat-trick. The fans were ecstatic, the expectations sky-high, and Mark Lawrenson and co could be heard saying ‘I told you so’ to anyone who would listen.
Over eight years later, has he lived up to that early billing? No, to be honest. The ‘white Pele’ tag was a little optimistic. That’s far from a criticism though: the fact he has never quite matched our early expectations should not detract from his ability and influence now. Besides, our expectations were always too high. We can blame giddy pundits for that.
Rooney’s game has changed over the years. As was the case with Owen before him, much of that thrilling directness and dynamism has been coached out of him. Rarely do we see him charging at players as he did so memorably at a startled Lilian Thuram in Euro 2004. He has, however, retained the strength of his younger self and his all-round game has improved, now possessing a greater passing range, sharper finishing, and better interplay. His snarling anger has subsided too.
His goal-scoring record perhaps exceeds common perception. He is known for scoring in bursts but the statistics suggest he is more consistent than he is credited for. He has scored 194 goals for United. Considering several injuries and enforced absences, an average of more than twenty a season is a fine record.
His work-rate has always been considerable, but his willingness to help the team can cause him to drift out of position. This has been largely solved by Van Persie’s arrival as it has encouraged Rooney to settle into a slightly deeper role, allowing him to dictate play and aid the midfield without stifling our attacking edge.
Of course, that is Kagawa’s favoured position too, and while he hasn’t set the world alight yet, there are signs his arsonist days are not too far away. If Rooney is to shine, how he is incorporated with Kagawa is key, and I hope Sir Alex can find a way to include both without sacrificing their best attributes.
So how good is Rooney? It’s fair to say there are numerous players in Europe and the Premier League who surpass his technical ability, but I feel he handsomely compensates with his desire and intensity (there are murmurings his passion has faded but I’m yet to be convinced, and feel it’s perhaps a hangover from that dismal contract saga). Even when not at his best, he rarely goes missing, a criticism you could aim at many well-known players.
If there is an obvious flaw, it’s the sloppiness that sometimes litters his general play (the recent FA cup encounter with Fulham is a good example, despite a nicely-taken goal). He can frustrate, particularly when he suddenly becomes hopeless, unable to pass accurately or even trap the ball. That these moments just abruptly occur from time to time and are so pull-your-hair-out frustrating, it almost makes you wonder if it is a creative marketing ploy for a certain weave company.
I believe the main obstacle for Rooney to overcome is to prove more at the highest level. Though he has enjoyed an impact on important games, he must strive do it on a more regular basis. For instance, he must consistently excel, and inspire, in the latter stages of the Champions League – starting with Real Madrid.
It’s a huge game for United, and a huge game for Rooney. Madrid are looking to Ronaldo; we’re looking to Van Persie. But maybe Rooney can step forward, stamp his authority on a top-class game, and steal the headlines. We have just witnessed him playing well and scoring against quality opposition on a Wednesday night. The same again next week wouldn’t go amiss.