THE saga now enveloping the career of Wayne Rooney is a lot less complicated than it might look. At its heart is a beautifully simple truth which England’s leading footballer cannot dodge. Without performance there is no power.
It all started with a drop in Rooney’s levels at Manchester United. Without the old thrust and zip, he is a static player who can hope to influence games only with isolated moments of brilliance.
If younger opponents go shooting by him, he is vulnerable to the rival claims of team-mates who possess the speed and energy to regain possession. Carrying more bulk than he should, he is bound to perspire and tire too early in matches and therefore look exposed by modern football’s hyper-activeness.
This has nothing to do with politics, pay, reputation or managerial favouritism. It was one of the most fundamental principles of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management that players would play for United only if they could meet the standard the club demanded. It was one of the distinctive strengths of the Ferguson era that no player could guarantee himself a place in the side on the basis of who he was.
In his halcyon years, Rooney gave United what they asked for. He delivered on the promise of his wonderful precocity. With Cristiano Ronaldo he formed one of the club’s most potent partnerships. When Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid, he assumed the mantle of talisman and chief destroyer, for a while.
But there was rarely a sense that he was applying himself to the job as conscientiously as the world’s truly great players.
In the current stand-off, many will trace the roots of the conflict to the autumn of 2010, when Rooney returned from an abysmal World Cup campaign to face newspaper revelations about his private life, and then came close to joining Manchester City after putting his name to a statement questioning United’s “ambitions”.
This laughable suggestion that the most relentlessly successful club in England were failing to match the aspirations of a player who had just bombed at a World Cup ended with United’s American owners electing to inflate his salary to make him stay. But you can only play that game once with a billion-pound corporation when the manager has a track record of seeing off troublemakers.
Even then Rooney might have settled down to become a United luminary at an establishment paying him £250,000 a week. One or two colleagues were understandably offended by his scripted accusation that the club were failing to compete in the transfer market. “Who is he to look down on me?” the recent arrivals might have said. Yet ill-feeling of that type generally subsides so long as there is no repetition.
It is common, in discussions about England’s senior striker, to say that he is “badly advised,” which is code for: his agent is a pain. It was reasonable to detect the hand of Paul Stretford in the statement of October 2010, and fair to ask why newspapers reported this week that Rooney was “angry and confused” about his treatment by United.
Stretford is plainly a handful for United’s board, but no 27-year-old multi-millionaire can hide behind his agent forever. Stretford is not to blame for Ferguson taking Rooney off in games last season, or for him being left out altogether for a Champions League home second-leg against Real Madrid. His fall from grace last term was evidence-based. The responsibility for it rests with him.
From Rooney’s own perspective, Robin van Persie’s arrival from Arsenal must have been dispiriting, so soon after Ronaldo’s gilded reign. The purchase of Shinji Kagawa might also have pointed to a lack of faith in him in the playmaking role.
With Rooney, any lowering of his spirits is likely to undermine his social discipline, with further damage to his effectiveness. And so the cycle continues, to the point where he – not realising that Ferguson is about to retire – indicates a desire to leave, for the second time, soon after United have wrapped up their 20th league title against Aston Villa.
A severance between the two sides now looks as inevitable as it is desirable. United’s fans will never fully embrace him again. Rooney himself appears alienated and needs to start again. But United will not place his private needs before their own, especially after this latest clumsy PR move (the “angry and confused” approach).
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea look the prime threat to United’s dominance, and the Glazers would need to be offered an astronomical sum to overcome their reluctance to sell him to a Premier League rival. Rooney was made a special case three years ago, and there is no urge to yield to him again.
The problem started with him, as a footballer, however much he dances around that.