Club legend or below the best: why Wayne Rooney leaves Manchester United with a divided legacy
You wonder what emotions will be bouncing around under those expensive hair implants as he leaves Old Trafford for a return to Everton this summer.
Thirteen years after joining Manchester United, Wayne Rooney leaves as his club and country’s all-time leading goalscorer. He’s won everything there is to win at club level, and is one of the most decorated footballers to play the game in this country.
In 30 years time, will he be mentioned alongside the likes of George Best and Bobby Charlton?
There were times when he was also the best player in the country – particularly the 34-goal seasons of 2009/10 and 2011/12. And yet there’s something unsatisfying about how it’s all turned out – a sense that Rooney could, and maybe should, have been so much more.
Protracted contract sagas and flirtations with Manchester City have soured his relationship with United fans somewhat. In 30 years time, will he be mentioned alongside the likes of George Best and Bobby Charlton?
You suspect that Rooney’s overriding sense as he drove out of United’s training ground for the last time might have been one of relief. For the last few years, Rooney has played with a weariness. He’s seemed weighed down - maybe worn down by the sheer amount of football he’s played since bursting onto the scene as a 16-year-old.
Old versus new
Looking back to those early appearances for Everton is like watching a different player. Take that first Premier League goal, against Arsenal - the curling drive crashing in off David Seaman’s crossbar that made Rooney the division’s youngest ever goalscorer (it’s worth a watch for the commentary, and to see David Moyes wearing an expression other than ‘haunted’). There’s a lightness and spontaneity to his play. Compared to now, the movements are quick, the touch is sure, and there’s no hesitation whatsoever.
That’s the attitude that propelled Rooney to the Premier League.
As a boy, he’d play for hours on his own until it got dark - kicking a ball around on the asphalt five-a-side pitch behind his house until it burst, then swapping it for a rolled-up pair of socks. He kicked balls over passing cars to hit a road sign on the other side of the street, and wrecked the pebbledash walls of his grandmother’s house in Croxteth with repeated shots and passes.
At 10, Rooney made his Goodison Park debut as a mascot. Neville Southall rolled the ball out to him, expecting the slight young boy with the prominent ears to pass it gently back like the other kids. Instead Rooney - who’d scored 99 goals for his junior club the previous year - chipped the ball over Big Nev and into the net.
“To be a top footballer you need to have a bit of arrogance, a bit of swagger about you,” said Rooney in an interview with David Winner for ESPN from 2012. But is that swagger still there now in the way it was with a latter-day Luis Figo, or someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (still performing at the age of 35)?
Rooney is 31, yet his career has seemed to fizzle out. His career at Manchester United, at least, ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Perhaps he would have been better served without a big arrival.
If he hadn’t worked wonders for Everton, for England at Euro 2004 or scored a hat-trick on his Champions League debut for Manchester United, perhaps expectations would have been set at a more realistic level. Then we’d applauding him on a stunning career.