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By Jamie Jackson
The oddity of Wayne Rooney’s glittering 13-year Manchester United career is that he departs for Everton to only muted applause. Despite a record that features a glut of trophies and personal achievements a strong sense of “Ta-ra Wayne, it’s about time” prevails among supporters.
This can be traced to the perception Rooney never adopted the fitness regime required to reach the heights of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and the disquiet he caused when twice in three years nearly exiting the club.
This is a footballer who last season passed Sir Bobby Charlton’s mark to rank as United’s record scorer with 253 goals; a footballer who claimed five Premier League titles, the Champions League, the Europa League, the FA Cup, three League Cups, the Fifa Club World Cup, was twice PFA Young Footballer of the Year and voted the 2010 PFA and Football Writers Player of the Year; a footballer who arrived as the 18-year-old starlet who seemed destined to become a global great and registered a debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce in September 2004; a footballer whose aerial volley against Manchester City Sir Alex Ferguson described as the best he witnessed at Old Trafford in 26 and a half years as manager.
That finish came in February 2011 and Rooney’s fall in the eyes of many of the United congregation began with the saga of four months before. On 20 October 2010 Rooney questioned United’s ambition when stating he wanted to leave. Further insult to this injury came when his preferred destination emerged: Manchester City, many fans’ bitterest rivals. Two days later came a scarcely credible Rooney U-turn. This featured him agreeing a new contract at United and apologising to Ferguson and team-mates for his behaviour.
It began the reservations among United devotees, though. The bottom line was Rooney had doubled his salary to £180,000 a week and so his questioning of the club was viewed as a cynical act of brinkmanship aimed at squeezing the best terms possible.
Rooney vowed to rebuild trust with supporters but in the six years since the relationship has remained uneasy, suffering a gradual, irreversible decline.
This was accelerated in summer 2013, following Ferguson’s retirement that May. Towards the end of the campaign Rooney had fallen out with the manager and entered the close season again wishing to depart despite David Moyes now being in charge.
This time another fierce rival – Chelsea – was his intended new club. In autumn 2010 the faithful had not wanted Rooney to go. Now, though, unconditional love was replaced by an acceptance that it might be best if he did.
When the episode once more closed with the Liverpudlian staying and the following February he agreed a bumper new deal – a basic £250,000 a week – this killed any lingering love felt for him among a large constituency of fans.
This erosion of affection was caused by another factor: the perception of a steep decline in Rooney’s powers. In February 2014 he was 28 and should have been at his peak. Yet despite that campaign ending with 17 league goals, his highest tally in the following three years – 12 – came the next season, with the last two featuring eight and five.
It is rare now to hear unqualified praise for Rooney the player. Mention the man-boy who arrived in August 2004 and it is different. United fans freely gush about the menacing tyro whose blistering turn of pace and firebrand mentality tore up contests.
This last point is of particular note. Perhaps the most telling observation Moyes made during an ill-fated tenure of 34 league matches was what he told Rooney when persuading the forward not to go to Chelsea. “He came up to my house. I said to him: ‘If you ask me what’s missing – I think you’ve gone a bit soft,’” the Scot said.
Moyes’s view proved prescient. The late-career Rooney is a footballer whose mental edge has become as dulled as the zip that was also once a prime asset.
Under José Mourinho last season the fall-off was dramatic. Suddenly Rooney’s legs were heavy and he was reduced to a lumbering spectator of many of the games he played in.
Mourinho may have executed a shrewd ploy when replacing Louis van Gaal last summer. In an opening press conference the Portuguese killed any notion Rooney could move back into midfield, stating “with me, he will never be a No6”. Mourinho insisted Rooney remained a finisher, watched as he managed one goal in his first seven matches and dropped him for a 4-1 win over Leicester City on 24 September. This ended Rooney’s status as an automatic starter and United’s captain eventually lost his England place and with it leadership of the national side.
To find Rooney’s last moment of unadulterated brilliance in a United shirt rewind to 15 March 2015. This was also, though, a microcosm of Rooney’s chequered time at the club as it began with a Sunday newspaper splash that featured him being knocked out in his kitchen by Stoke City’s Phil Bardsley.
In the afternoon Rooney responded with a vintage goal in a 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at OId Trafford. Collecting the ball near halfway Rooney was again the rampaging force of his youth as he made a mug of Eric Dier with a veer to the left, before allowing Hugo Lloris no chance.
The recent revelations that Rooney lost £500,000 in a casino illustrated his private life still lacks cast-iron discipline. But, in time, memories of the off-field indiscretions and slights against United should fade.
Then fans will surely recall how the £27m that Ferguson paid Everton for Rooney allowed them to witness the best years of his generation’s finest domestic footballer, a player who has a case for being one of the greats in the United firmament.