Club legend or below the best: why Wayne Rooney leaves Manchester United with a divided legacy
It’s hard to know whether the malaise is physical or psychological. Until recently, even during a bad run, Rooney was able to produce the spectacular. He’d only scored one goal in 18 games before that stunning overhead kick against Manchester City in February 2011. Indeed, just a few seconds earlier, a leaden-footed pass had almost cost his side possession.
At his best, Rooney had an ability that all great players share: he seemed to have more time than everyone else. His advantage was never in his pace or physique, it was in his speed of thought.
“What people don't realise is that it's obviously a physical game, but after the game, mentally, you're tired as well," he's said “Your mind has been through so much. There's so many decisions you have to make through your head. And then you're trying to calculate other people's decisions as well. It's probably more mentally tiring than physically.”
He’s never seemed to relish the celebrity side of football in the way that someone like David Beckham did
Of course, it isn’t just the stuff that happens on the pitch that must be mentally exhausting. If he’d been born in Spain or Italy, Rooney would have been a talent, for sure, but not the generation-defining centre-of-attention that he’s been ever since that hopeful shot thundered in off the bar against Arsenal. He’s never seemed to relish the celebrity side of football in the way that someone like David Beckham did, for example.
When thinking about Rooney’s legacy, there’s perhaps one moment from his time at United that sums it all up. It isn’t the overhead kick against City, although it was voted the best goal of the Premier League’s first two decades (shinned it). It’s not the goals, the outbursts, or the ROO-diculous parade of tabloid headlines.
The thing I’ll always remember about Wayne Rooney didn’t happen on the pitch at all. It’s from an advert for a mid-priced bottle of red called Casillero del Diablo (United’s official wine partner, of course).
As well as including what’s probably the worst piece of acting in the history of film, this short clip offers an insight into Rooney’s psyche. As a fireball flies through the Manchester sky to land on the Old Trafford pitch, Rooney looks out from a corporate box with dead eyes.
It’s symbolic of the gilded cage he’s found himself in. The game he loved has given him everything - he’s rich, successful and world famous. But it’s also taken a lot. Perhaps the the years of travelling, tabloid headlines and constant attention have ground him down.
He will eventually be remembered as one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players, but for the last few years he’s played like someone with the weight of that label pressing down on him. Perhaps a return to Everton will provide him with a release.
“They say he is a legend,” says Rooney at the end of that terrible advert, with all the verve and eloquence of a lobotomy patient. You certainly can’t argue with that, but maybe modern football - the excess, the scandal, the hyperbole - gives us the legends that we deserve.