When he burst onto the scene, Wayne Rooney was an electrifying, mesmerising footballer who could terrify opposition defences with his pace, power and skill. The most naturally gifted footballer of his generation, Rooney was the epitome of the ‘instinct player’ and there was never anything so alarming for opposition sides.
The Wayne Rooney who appeared in 2002 was raw power personified; energy, and everything you think about when you think ‘street footballer;’ that missing piece of the English footballing puzzle, that talent who could finally bridge the gap between the English and continental game.
It is no exaggeration to say that Wayne Rooney had everything. He had all the materials of a brilliant footballer even in embryo at Everton, with England, and long after he joined Manchester United in 2004. He was prone to bouts of frustration, and a tad more emotional at times than ideal, but what he gave to the team far outweighed any temperamental moments on the road.
Rawness – in its purest, most untainted form – was what epitomised Wayne Rooney’s game, in the best way imaginable. He had pace, poise, and an incredible eye. He just knew where the goal was. Rooney could play anywhere, and his enthusiasm and energy for the game would carry him through any positional naivety. He was selfless to a fault and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ascendency to brilliance from 2006 to 2009 arguably came at Rooney’s expense. Rooney played wide in a Champions League final — one of the pinnacles of his career — to accommodate Ronaldo and try to help his team.
He didn’t always play against Everton, but at Goodison Park in 2007 with the chips really down in the title race, Wayne Rooney showed his character. United went into the game needing a win, yet went a goal down on two separate occasions before pulling it back and ultimately going on to win 4-2. Rooney was peerless that day, and showed the brilliance that had forced United to sign him.
They called him ‘White Pele’ and the brace he scored against AC Milan at home in 2007, including a last-minute winner inside Dida’s near-post was probably the moment at which many people thought this premonition was coming true. Milan would ultimately go through, but that night, needing to really defend United’s honour in front of the Old Trafford crowd, Wayne Rooney came up fighting in earnest and proved his pedigree beyond doubt.
And he was selfless. In the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona, Rooney sacrificed himself for the team and played wide when many would have refused. Against Barcelona again two years later, he put in a truly heroic performance when Manchester United were well and truly beaten.
When Ronaldo departed in 2009, Wayne Rooney had to step up and fill the void left by the departing forty goal a season man. And this is where things started to change a little bit. Rooney did step up, and he did score an incredible amount of goals that season, but it was the year in which his game started to change radically. He became more of a proper striker, and no longer that energetic, fast-paced youth racing about the pitch and terrifying defenders with his unpredictability.
But it was also the time at which mere youth and enthusiasm no longer carried Wazza along. He became a father and was becoming tabloid fodder with people starting to question how he lived his life away from the game. Wayne’s character and his true dedication to the game started to be questioned in more detail.
In 2013, United coach Michael Clegg spoke to The Sun about the differences between Rooney and Ronaldo. Clegg told The Sun:
“Wayne didn’t see the importance of the gym really. He’d say, “I’m here to play football.” I always wish I could have pushed Wayne that bit further. [Ronaldo] lived and breathed football 24/7 and his dedication was phenomenal. Wayne could still be as good as Cristiano if he emulated his attitude to the gym — he is an amazing athlete when he puts his mind to it.”
Ronaldo became a truly great player, and Rooney, the one with all the natural ability, instincts and skill, never applied himself sufficiently or allowed himself to thrive in the same manner. The problem was that Rooney never truly applied himself to football in the way that other great players simply have to. It required additional work and with Rooney, there were simply too many pictures appearing of him drinking, smoking or eating unhealthily to ever succeed like Ronaldo.
It was also around this time that Wayne Rooney became embroiled in his first major contract dispute with Manchester United. His agent Paul Stretford was the Mino Raiola of his time, a larger than life figure himself, who was extremely devoted to his clients. By 2010, his sole client and source of his dedication was Wayne Rooney. Stretford was a one-time friend of Alex Ferguson’s – and former agent of Andy Cole – but when Stretford attempted to take advantage of the position of cash rich Manchester City at the other side of the city, it crossed a line in the sand for Wayne Rooney with many Manchester United fans. Carlos Tevez had already made the move across Manchester and Rooney made it clear that he would play for the highest bidder.
Alex Ferguson appeared a broken man in a press conference regarding Rooney in late 2010.
“I feel we have to keep door open, simply because such a good player, and we’ve done nothing but help him in private life. We’re bemused because we can’t understand why he would want to leave a club this successful. We don’t understand it … The player is adamant. He says he wants to leave. We have to deal the next part in terms of this request.”
Rooney would go on sign a mega-money new contract at Manchester United, but for many fans, things would simply never be the same. Threatening to go to City is a line no player should cross and Wayne Rooney did it for the sake of money.
Later that season Rooney scored an incredible acrobatic goal against City to win the Manchester derby — a goal that is still celebrated in TV ads. Against West Ham in April he starred, scoring a hattrick and again affect the title coming back to United. He also put in an outstanding performance against Barcelona in the Champions League final.
And that was almost it for Wayne Rooney and Manchester United. He would play for them for another six seasons but 2010-2011 was essentially the last season in which Rooney justified his price tag and everything that came with him. By 2011 he was twenty-six and that raw power, energy and street footballer exuberance had faded. His legs were gone. Louis Van Gaal recently spoke of the Rooney he encountered in 2014.
“I’m sorry but he was over the hill. But in spite of that he was one of my best players.”
In 2013, Rooney and Stretford agitated again and this time they wanted to move to José Mourinho’s Chelsea side as David Moyes’ reign was in its infancy. The end of Ferguson’s tenure at United had been palled by a spat with Rooney, with Ferguson claiming Rooney was angling to leave once again. Rooney denied this, but the Chelsea transfer story continued through the summer and when United played Swansea in August, Rooney refused to celebrate with his teammates upon scoring.
When Rooney left Manchester United, he was their all time top scorer and told the assembled press at his unveiling press conference at Goodison Park that he had slept in Everton pyjamas during his thirteen year stint at Old Trafford.
We will remember the good times, the glory years and the many fond memories that Wayne Rooney has provided for Manchester United over the years. He was a phenomenal player in his early years. Rather than the aura and the PR bullshit which kept him a superstar from 2010 onwards as United’s most marketable player, fans should appreciate him for when he was truly great.
Before the contract disputes happened, and even for the remainder of that 2010-11 season, Wayne Rooney was great. He was the White Pele that made you enjoy watching football. It is likely that the Manchester City dalliance/contract dispute happened at an unfortunate time for Rooney, as it is a real line of demarcation in the player’s career. He would never be great again, and from then on he was just like all the others who come in; over-paid, over-indulgent and underperforming.
Despite everything that he achieved in his career, there will always be an ‘if only’ element to what Wazza could have been had he lived like Ronaldo.
It’s like the banner that they hang at Old Trafford which has become a motto for the fans in recent years, ‘If I hadn’t seen such riches. I could live with being poor.’ It applies to Wazza too. He set such high standards in his early years that it was always going to be a disappointment when those heights were not being reached anymore.