Back in the summer of 2013 football fans were asking the same question that they’re asking now – should Manchester United sell Wayne Rooney? Fresh from a reported second transfer request (if you believe Sir Alex Ferguson), the player’s future at the club looked in doubt yet again with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea looking to snatch him from the soon-to-be David Moyes’ team. Wayne had under performed in the shadow of dutch cult-hero Robin Van Persie and the signs of decline that both England and United fans tried admirably to ignore had started to become more and more prevalent. The new boss opted to keep him, but just two years later it seems that that decision may have been the wrong one.
Back then I held the belief that it was time to part ways with one another. In a move that resurrected the memories of his desire to leave for Manchester City three years earlier, Rooney widened the gap between him and many of the United supporters who had begrudgingly forgiven his earlier sin.
The man from Merseyside looked like he’d lost his fire; his obsession with calming down on the field, it seemed, had taken him to the opposite extreme. No longer was he the quick footed and sharp thinking 16 year old who set alight the pitch every time he touched the ball. He also wasn’t the deeper centre forward who could play behind the striker and do anything other than blast shots over the bar from outside the box whenever given the chance. As Moyes said, there was a reason Chelsea only bid £28m for him.
The club however, remained over reliant on Wayne. It was almost as if those in the boardroom wanted him to be the lasting image of the 2008 wonder-team when the old guard moved out over the coming years. It’s a compelling argument that you can entertain but it gave an unprecedented opportunity to the player to take advantage of club’s vulnerability in the wake of Sir Alex’s and David Gill’s double retirement blow.
Knowing he was unmovable as the lead icon within the club, he manoeuvred his way as lead striker for the team playing on Moyes’ relationship with him and earned a colossal £300,000 a week contract; all within the space of nine months. Those who thought of him as one of the slower-brained individuals within the squad were given a quick lesson that that was not the case.
His form for United since that window has been indifferent to say the least; after a promising start to the season it seemed his displacing of Van Persie atop the pinnacle of the attack was warranted. He scored a magnificent Beckham-esque goal at West Ham and effectively carried the team through till Christmas.
As usual though, this form was not sustained – the 17 goals and 10 assists in 2013/14 (top for the club for that season) paint a picture that is deviously inaccurate. When the team’s faults became more and more obvious after the turn of the year Rooney, who had been trusted with the roll of talisman by Moyes, saw his form fluctuate at the most inconvenient of times. That season ended with Wayne still seemingly in a gradual decline, Robin alienated and a steep pay rise that was of stark contrast to the steep fall of the team’s league position; down from 1st to 7th.
Louis van Gaal came in that summer and was faced with the task of appointing a new captain – who could he turn to? There were no true leaders. Patrice Evra had been sold as had current captain Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand left and Ryan Giggs retired. Darren Fletcher hadn’t had a proper season of football under his belt for years, Michael Carrick was clearly not captain material, Robin Van Persie hadn’t been at the club long enough leaving the armband in the hands of Rooney.
It seemed to many that he had been given it by a quick process of elimination rather than being cherry picked for the role, something that has never quite sat right. So a man in decline, who had in the past four years wanted to leave for major rivals on two separate occasions, who under performs when guaranteed a starting place was the new club captain and yep, you guessed it, had a guaranteed starting place.
The next season Wayne was tried as a defensive midfielder, central midfielder, playmaker, centre forward, striker and even as Fred the Red (not really) in a bid to see him gain some form. All of those pursuits failed miserably. Van Persie, slated at the end of the season and sold the following summer, arguably out-performed him. Of course more excuses were found for him, this time it was that he needed to be the focal point up top again, so out went Robin and Radamel Falcao as the sacrificial lambs in another attempt to prolong his fading United career. Almost two months into the following season and he has been shockingly bad. An 878-minute long goal drought more than outweighs his hat-trick against Club Brugge, and it’s not like he is playing well despite the stats.
If you’ve watched him this season you’ll know that that goal drought has been representative of the performances he has put in, and you’ll also know how much 19 year-old new boy Anthony Martial has outdone him in every single department.
Let all that sink in a minute then ask yourself; was it worth it? Was keeping Rooney two and a half years ago really worth it? An icon (for some) remains at the club, as does his experience, work rate and guile. His first touch, his instinct, his goal contribution in both scoring and assisting terms and his pace do not remain at the club however. The captaincy has kept him in the side for way too long – it’s shifted talented players out the club and shifted Martial out wide (where he does not sparkle as much as he had done centrally). It’s no longer a case of a Wayne Rooney decline but more than ever a case of him holding the club back.
Some gifted ex-players still blindly root for him, still caught up in the nostalgia of what he could have become, which was so much more than the still-excellent career haul he has today. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring his accomplishments of course – for England and United he has been one of our greatest ever players but landmarks passed do not win you trophies nor do they make you play at the expected standard now. The fact of the matter is that Rooney is now 30, in a rapid decline without properly consistent form from the past three years to defend him. The club cannot afford to keep investing their faith into what he could have become because what he has become right now is – and I hate to say this as much as the next guy – a hindrance. In fact, they could only just about justify it in 2013 when he should have been sold.
So yes, two years ago probably should have been the good bye that seems more and more likely to happen this summer. I suppose better late than never is the best we can hope for now.