It was announced today Rooney is going back to Everton. So I thought it was a good time to write a piece on why there is perhaps a question mark about his “legend” status despite his incredible achievements. Firstly to put this in context, lets look at his acheivements, record goalscorer for both club and country, won every trophy possible with United, only 2nd to Bobby Charlton in all time Manchester United appearances. Yet he is not particularly heralded instead more often he is riduculed and chastised. Here’s why I think why.
Think back to Euro 2004, a young 18 year old English striker was terrorising the defences of Europe. His performances in that tournament were dazzling, he was a world beater and sense was if he’s this good at 18 imagine how good he’d be in a few years. This was our hope, this was our Pele, this kid was special. Seriously special and he was. Rooney was different to typical English players, especially at that time. Technically he was as good as any Spaniard or Brazillian, he had a first touch that was out of this world. He could score goals from anywhere on the pitch, he had strength, vision and while often mocked for his weight, he had deceptive pace. Plus he was doggedly hard working. The only thing he couldn’t do was tackle but neither could Scholes so. Rooney was hyped like no player before. Gazza who was perhaps half as talented as Rooney let’s be honest had the same and crumbled under the expectation. Rooney throughout his career has maintained a consistently high level of performance. He’s been consistently good in the context of every other player. But he’s also been consistently below 2004 Rooney. The weight on his back is that he’s never played how he played that summer and no matter what he acheived they’ll always be a case of he’s not that player.
While I think it is true to say the expectations of Rooney were exceedingly high, I do not think it is true to say those expectations were unfair. He was such a gifted youngster, look at the Everton goal against Arsenal, the hat-trick in his Champions League debut, he was brilliant, truly truly brilliant and look at his peers Messi and Ronaldo, the two best players of his generation. Ronaldo of course played with Rooney for a number of years. Rooney started out ahead, if you asked anyone in 2004 who was more likely to win a Ballon D’or in the future they’d say Rooney no question. Yet Ronaldo overtook him to be become one of the greatest players of all time. While Rooney seemed to be stuck in some kind of time freeze. One thing that sets Ronaldo and Messi apart from the rest is that they have an ability to save their teams, to rescue their teams, when the pressure is on, Real or Barca can pass to them and they will produce something. Rooney has never really been that man for United. They’ve rarely ever asked him too. They had Ronaldo or other players that were willing to take the burden. Yes there were games, I’m not saying he wasn’t a matchwinner for United on occasion, I’m not even saying he wasn’t a big game player look at his goal in the 2011 Champions League final for instance, what I’m saying is he never really emerged as THE man for Manchester United, especially when they perhaps needed him to be in the latter Fergie years. In fact you could argue Fergie signed RVP specifically because he recognised Rooney could not give him that effect he needed. He was good but he was never a game changer in that respect. It was too rare that he won games on his own, and I think that’s something that legends of football can do. Gerd Muller for instance, great goalscorer, no Cruyff. You have to have that something extra, Rooney never gained that, for some reason. He never emerged as that figure at United even when stars left.
This was even more apparent internationally, now you could argue that the Messis and Ronaldos of this world also underperformed internationally and again you could argue that how could a man who is record goalscorer for his country possibly of unperformed. Well look back at Euro 2004, and compare that to every other tournament he played, you’ll find that Euro 2004 he was world beater, and all the others he was abysmal. Why? I have no idea. We didn’t have great managers so maybe they didn’t play the right systems, and I definitely remember a period where managers tried to accommodate others rather than building a team around our best player which frankly from 2004 – 2014 was always Rooney, but despite all that he didn’t deliver. At all, and after the so-called Golden Generation began to wane, what we needed more than ever was Rooney to step up, drag the team by the coat-tails and get them success with his sheer individual brilliance. That’s rare for a player to have the ability to do that, especially in teams as weak as some recent England sides, but 2004 Rooney would’ve done, I truly believe that, he lost something after that tournament, whether it was injuries or his personal issues, he lost something and I think his complete lack of performance for his country is what will be most damaging to his legacy because United fans can say he’s been poor the last few years, holding them back whatever, but there were seasons where he was crucial to their success, 2008 for instance the Rooney-Ronaldo partnership was insane, or 09-10 and 11-12 when he scored 34 goals for United. For England he delivered nothing, only scoring 1 solitary World Cup finals goal.
You could say in a number of ways Rooney is a victim of circumstance. He is an exceptionally skillful player but because he lacked the grace of an Iniesta or a Silva, this is often overlooked, but watch the overhead kick v City or the volley against Newcastle and you can see it, his dogged workman like style masks this skill. Despite possessing such skill you would never describe as a flair player in the vein of a Zidane or a Ronaldinho but if you hear his peers describe him I have no doubt he could show this flair, he just always opted against it. If he had, he’d likely have more admirers. Rooney’s focus always seemed to be on doing what’s best for the team, and while that is laudable, a lack of recognition that you are best means you often pass to lesser teammates due to your unselfishness, in the England case this was suicidal. For United his tenure coincided with a period of much more exotic, quality world class players meaning there was very little time where he was genuinely the biggest player on the team and it’s pretty difficult to stake your claim as one of the best ever, if you were very rarely the best on your team. In this he perhaps either moved to United too early or stayed too long. Following on from that, you could say but what about his loyalty and passion for United, well he threatened to leave..twice. Effectively holding the club to ransom which doesn’t really demonstrate loyalty.
Another reason for the lukewarm admiration of Rooney is he never really found his position. To the be the best, you kind of need to know what your best at and he was almost good at everything but master of none. Number 10 was his “obvious” best position but he played there a lot for England and didn’t do much. He also could never stay there, his style was almost a schoolboy running wherever the ball was always wanting to be on the ball, which is great but unlike a Messi he didn’t necessarily have the dribbling ability and his teammates can’t predict this and didn’t fill the gaps. Most are universally agreed he’s not an out and out goalscorer but he did score 30+ goals in 2 different seasons, and in his later career he has flirted with midfield with disastrous consequences. He no doubt has the passing range, but as he’s lost his pace, the mobility isn’t there plus he can’t tackle. Rooney through his career was almost the world’s best utility player filling in wherever a given attack needed him and again the best players should not be filling in they should be leading, filling in compromises some of your ability to make room for others of perhaps lesser ability, the star should be in their best position and the team should be built around at least if the star has the ability of Rooney at least. This lack of impetus from Rooney himself is another example of the flaws of lacking an ego when it comes to ability in football, maybe if he’d be a bit more arrogant and pulled his collar up, we’d of seen more of the player he could’ve been.
Furthermore we’ve discussed it a little already but I think I this is perhaps unfair, but I think his personality has also held him back, maybe not from being a legend but definitely from being a cult hero of the likes of Cantona or Best. The problem is he doesn’t have much of one, he’s really boring. So it doesn’t tally with his all action football. He also comes across as a bit dim, which means people don’t necessarily appreciate his footballing brain, but most importantly it’s his humility that I think has been a problem. He’s too humble, he’s never believed he was the best and therefore never has been. I think Messi’s humble too, but inside he knows how good he is and he exerts that confidence on the field, Rooney did it but only sporadically. I was going to say his temperament is perhaps another black mark but maybe not when you think of the likes of Zidane or Maradona.
My final point is on his decline. While I said earlier he has been consistently good for a number of seasons, he has an extremely rapid and sharp decline is his ability and performance over the last 3 years, the like of which I think is rare. He’s not actually particularly old and he has been atrocious at times. Which is why I think when people talk of him now it’s that that is at the forefront of their mind, but when people stop and look back at his career, I think they will see he was a great, perhaps not as great as he could of been, but let’s be frank, he’s certainly the greatest England player of this generation and a legend of Manchester United and when people look at his career without the biases of comparing him against Messi or his 2004 performances they’ll recognise his achievements and his rightful place in the footballing annals. Will we rave about him, probably not, but then again no one really raves about Jimmy Greaves, but he scored a hell of a lot more than Geoff Hurst.