Fighter Rooney is as important for Man United now as he ever was – despite a year to forget

"I'd put Wayne Rooney up front with Cristiano Ronaldo in my all-time XI of Manchester United players I played with," Gary Neville tells FourFourTwo. "Above Cantona, Hughes, Yorke and Cole. All great strikers, but Wayne has got qualities from all of those players. He's those four players wrapped in one."

Neville has worked with Rooney since 2004.

"I see a player showing greater maturity in taking on responsibility, in his manner on the pitch and his manner around people. He understands that people look up to him and that he can influence them.

"He's entered a new phase in his career. He knows he's not the up-and-coming youngster anymore, or even a player in the middle of his career. He realises that he's got vast experience from travelling a similar journey to David Beckham.

"He's had the media scrutiny, he's been sent off in the World Cup... nothing can shock him anymore and he's got an inner comfort from that. He knows that's what you get when you're the captain of Manchester United and England."

Most of all, Neville respects Rooney as a goalscorer.

"Make no mistake, he's a proven high-quality goalscorer who would do better than one in two if he played as a centre-forward. He's been sacrificed to different positions because of his versatility, but he’s still England's best goalscorer and is a huge danger when played in forward positions."

Twice bitten, forever shy

Rooney's enjoyed a fine career, but while his popularity remains high among match-going United fans – his name is more popular on the back of shirts than any other player – United’s support still remember October 2010 and the summer of 2013 when they thought he was angling for a move from Old Trafford.

Given that only six football clubs can afford his wages, Rooney's options were limited. Barcelona and Real Madrid were aware of his potential availability in the summer 2013 and both passed on England's best player. For the money being mooted, they wanted a talent of Ballon d'Or-winning quality, not one closing in on his fourth decade.

I'd put Wayne up front with Cristiano Ronaldo in my all-time XI of United players I played with"

Sir Bobby Charlton, the man whose United and England goalscoring records will likely tumble to Rooney, would have made any world XI at his prime. Rooney is a fantastic footballer, United's best since Cristiano Ronaldo, but despite playing in a trophy-winning team until 2013, he hasn't become one of the exalted elite jetting to Zurich to collect the highest individual gongs each winter.

"Wayne's underneath the bracket of Messi, Ronaldo and Zlatan," opines Andy Cole. "A very good player for Manchester United and England, but not at the level of the others."

A decade ago at Euro 2004, Rooney looked like he could be the best, but he didn't have Ronaldo's drive in the pursuit of personal excellence. Did anyone?

Charlton played for England when they were world champions; Rooney plays for a team recently compared by his former team-mate Paul Scholes to a mid-table Championship side. England underwhelm, and after one Uruguay player left the field in Sao Paulo after they'd beaten England, he privately revealed: "England have no cracks, they're very, very average. We expected a harder game."

Paris St Germain, Manchester City and Chelsea could afford him. City tried to sign him in 2010 and came close, before the intervention of balaclava-clad United fans at his house made Rooney realise family life on the blue side in Manchester wouldn't be straightforward. City were once bitten, twice shy when Rooney was next linked to a 2013 move away from Old Trafford.  

Wayne's underneath Messi, Ronaldo and Zlatan. Very good for United and England, but not at the level of the others"

Paris also erred in 2013. They already boasted Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Chelsea tried to sign him too, and Rooney's United team-mates firmly understand the scouser wanted to move. By the start of August 2013, United fans not criticising Rooney and telling him to sling it were scarce. But United’s refusal to sell wasn't just a negotiating tactic and he didn't leave.

He stayed, signed a bigger contract and was made the talisman of David Moyes's team, then won fans back by being United's best player during their worst season since 1988/89.

Imagine how bad United would have been without Croxteth's finest last season? Imagine how much abuse Ed Woodward would have received had United's best player been allowed to leave without a replacement?

"When any player looks back on a 15-year career there'll be moments when they think they could have handled things differently," says Neville. "I know I did. Nobody makes perfect decisions every time."

A much bigger pie

The saga was unpalatable to fans who see things in black or white, but Rooney didn't do badly out of the discontent that originated from a clash of personalities with Sir Alex Ferguson.

His advisors also knew United were striking big sponsorship deals, knew too that much improved TV contracts were imminent. And they wanted what they saw as their fair piece of the pie.   

United weren't daft enough for Rooney to be seen as their only star and Ferguson had no qualms about dropping him – prompting him to think about leaving – but with Ryan Giggs and Scholes retiring, Rooney was increasingly viewed as the top United player in foreign markets courted by United: markets obsessed by the cult of personality. He's an English heart at England's biggest club, a fighter beloved by the British.

When any player looks back there'll be moments when they think they could have handled things differently. I know I did"

Louis van Gaal made the point that his nationality was a big factor when choosing his captain. Unversed in the nuances of Rooney being a scouser, foreigners in United's dressing room see him as an emblem of the club, the captain they trust and like.

Rooney may one day play again for Everton, the club he supports. Relations with Evertonians are much improved, but while nobody should rule out a repeat of the 2010 and 2013 sagas, his future remains at the one club who can afford him and want him.

The father of two turns 30 next year and his game is changing with age. Predictions that his unathletic build will see him decline after 30 seem wide of the mark – and contested by Rooney, who claims his strong body has prevented him picking up muscle injuries. But his game has definitely altered. 

"He used to try to cover ever blade of grass," says Cole. "He's had to slow that down a bit – you have to as you get older – but he still has a big influence on most games. United's formation changes; Wayne usually plays at the top of the diamond, but he also plays as a holding midfielder. Watch how deep he comes in any game. He does that to get involved, because he wants to influence and control the game. He's driven to get on the ball, to create chances as well as score goals himself."

"He's the last of the street footballers," says his former boss David Moyes.

"He could play in any position"

Rooney trains well and plays well. He's matured, is more confident with the media too, and fellow professionals love that drive.

"Rooney?" said Carlos Queiroz when listing him among the greatest players he'd worked with. "Power and commitment and so much drive – to the point that he could lose focus. He could play in any position, including goalkeeper. He played there in training."

He's the last of the street footballers"

Rooney's focus and discipline has improved, but he still let his side down in September 2014 for hacking West Ham's Stewart Downing in his own half at Old Trafford. That meant a three-game ban which his injury-hit side could ill afford.

This year has brought a positive, his 100th cap for England. Rooney measures himself by success not plaudits.

He was delighted when United brought Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao in the summer, just as he was when Robin van Persie arrived in 2012. He knows great players win trophies and is confident enough in his own abilities not to see them as a threat. With Falcao injured and Van Persie out of form, Rooney remains as important to United as he always has in his decade at the club.

"He's one of very few left in the game who'll fight everyone for everything for 90 minutes," says Neville. "He'll run into corners to chase a ball when his team are 1-0 up with 10 minutes to go. Forget about comparing him with Messi and Ronaldo, he should be compared with warriors like Robson, Keane, Adams and Ince."

More on the #FFT100

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1