Wayne Rooney is a Manchester United great - so why is he not more loved?
It is a strange quirk of Wayne Rooney’s relationship with Manchester United’s supporters that, if you were to conduct a straw poll on the Stretford End to gauge whether he or Cristiano Ronaldo was held in greater esteem, the current United captain would come a distant second to the guy who upped sticks and left for Real Madrid.
It would be Viva Ronaldo all the way, with rolled eyes and shrugs whenever Rooney becomes the topic of discussion.
There is a pantheon of greats at Old Trafford and Rooney, because of his achievements, his goals and his longevity, deservedly claimed his place in it long before celebrating his thirtieth birthday on Saturday.
But if there was to be a top ten list of players in the hearts of United supporters, Rooney is unlikely to be in it and he can probably thank a dalliance with Manchester City, five years ago this week, for his absence from that exclusive group.
Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, George Best, Bryan Robson, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, along with Ronaldo, would probably all beat Rooney to a place among the United elite, but it is the Ronaldo fixation which would perhaps most warrant Rooney to raise an eyebrow.
Rooney, after all, stayed at United when he could have pushed through two aborted attempts to leave, to City in 2010 and Chelsea 2013, but Ronaldo left, at the end of a two-year battle to leave Old Trafford for Real, in 2009.
Ronaldo has since played the PR game almost as well as he has performed on the pitch for Real, however, with regular comments about his debt to Sir Alex Ferguson and United, not to mention his teasing refusal to rule out a return to the club – shortly before signing a lucrative new five-year contract at the Bernabeu two years ago.
Ronaldo will talk fondly of Kath, the long-serving receptionist at Carrington, and being shaped by his six years in Manchester, but Rooney has never quite played to win hearts and minds in the same manner and it may explain why he is not loved by the United fans.
A boyhood Evertonian, a Scouser, who has never made a secret of his devotion to the blue half of Merseyside – in a recent BBC documentary, he admitted the importance of his two sons being born in Liverpool – Rooney has conspicuously stopped short of saying what supporters always like to hear.
For Rooney, his career at United has been purely business.
He has benefited hugely from that relationship, but so has the club, who have won titles and trophies on the back of his goals, tenacity and, at times, sheer presence in Ferguson’s team.
Both United and Rooney have been good for each other, so it has been a perfectly successful piece of business.
But Everton has always been the team closest to his heart, so when he came close to leaving United for City five years ago, in what was viewed as an act of treachery by many Old Trafford supporters was merely another example of Rooney putting football as a business first.
Perhaps it was a cold calculation, both by Rooney and representatives, but having left behind the club whose colours decorated his bedroom wall as a schoolboy to sign for United, why should he expected to commit to seeing out his career at Old Trafford when the ties that bound him were anything but emotional.
United were not making the signings and showing the ambition he deemed necessary, but City were and they were also ready to pay a king’s ransom to take him across town to the Etihad Stadium.
Neither Rooney nor City have ever confirmed that a deal was on the table, but one figure deeply involved in the blue machinations has since claimed that the player was a ‘fag paper’ away from crossing town in 2010-11.
The threat of United suffering the ultimate humiliation of losing their best player and talisman to their newly-powerful neighbours was enough to prompt one group of supporters, the self-styled ‘Men in Black,’ to visit Rooney’s house four days into the saga in a sinister attempt to discourage the player from being lured away by Sheikh Mansour’s millions.
The fact that Rooney subsequently performed a U-turn by signing a new £250,000-a-week contract with United has never been able to repair the damage caused by his week-long stand-off with the club, but in the end, well, business is business.
As a leading performer in his field, Rooney knew his worth and made sure United recognised that.
He held a gun to the club’s head when they were at their most vulnerable, but stopped short of pulling the trigger, yet the accusations of disloyalty have never gone away.
It was different for Ronaldo, with the Portuguese leaving for a foreign club rather than a direct rival, but he still left, and Rooney stayed.
Imagine if Gary Neville, as a teenager at United, left for another club because his boyhood team could not match his ambitions.
No matter where Neville ended up, supporters of his new team would know of his affinity with United, but they would expect him to pledge similar love for his new employers.
But deep down, Neville would always be a red, just as Rooney has always been a blue and the absence of emotional ties to the second club would inevitably rear its head when contracts or interest from elsewhere emerged.
Despite his current battle for form, Rooney has undoubtedly delivered during his time at United.
He could end up surpassing Charlton as the club’s greatest-ever goalscorer and surpass all but Charlton, Giggs, Neville and Scholes in terms of time served at Old Trafford, but neither achievement is likely to earn him the love and affection of the supporters.
Perhaps that is all down to his readiness to consider a move to City and the realisation in the stands that United’s best player was prepared to swap red for blue.
But despite it all, he stayed and Ronaldo is not the only player to have left Old Trafford who leaves Rooney in the shade when it comes to the adoration of United’s supporters.