Questions surrounding the person of Wayne Rooney within United circles and beyond have, in recent weeks, reached an almost deafening crescendo. Questions of leadership frailties, following the much publicised haranguing of Tyler Blackett at Leicester, to accusatory finger pointing over his diminishing contribution to the team as a whole, to the widely cited and much aired double transfer request (or one depending on whose version you support), has rendered Rooney one of the most polarised figures amongst Manchester United fans around the world.
Lauded and despised, in equal measure, as the epitome and antithesis of all things United. The raw passion and aggression, once hailed as precious and admirable commodities, displayed in the early, formative stages of his career are now used, by his detractors, as a stick with which to beat him. Suggestions that a more mature, measured approach should be evident in a player with Rooney’s vast experience miss the point of what constitutes Wayne Rooney. A player whose tenacity and willingness to run, to track back when necessary to fill a void anywhere on the pitch made him a hero in the eyes of the Old Trafford faithful. That he could score an array of sublime goals, chips, volleys and thirty yard screamers, only served to elevate his status higher. However, the core element underpinning everything, that forged an insatiable appetite to win, to cover every blade of grass has been an aggressive streak, a streak that lingers just below the surface. That such aggression, on occasion, gets the better of Rooney to reveal a brand of petulance or stupidity, regularly seen in the playground, is perhaps just part of the deal, the price we pay for the ingenuity and flashes of brilliance. Other mercurial talents, such as Beckham, Cantona and Keane, were not immune to the odd discretion, did we routinely castigate them or did we simply accept it was part of their make up?
Nonetheless, there is a persistent train of thought suggesting, as many have, that the wild swing at Stewart Downing has simply confirmed Rooney as a petulant, ill disciplined, self absorbed wastrel. However, wild as the attempted professional foul was, it was simply that, a professional foul designed to prevent a breakaway West Ham attack that, from Rooney’s vantage, presented an opportunity to run straight at the heart of a defence holding a particularly high line. A scenario, if we needed reminding, that led to the catastrophe of the 5-3 drubbing at the hands of Leicester City. Had Rooney clipped Downing’s ankles, as a host of former professionals have been clamouring to remind us, it is not inconceivable that Rooney would be applauded as ‘taking one for the team’ to snuff out the potential danger before it had arisen. The fact that it played out rather differently is more a circumstance of split second decision making and timing, rather than one of craven ineptitude. Does anyone remember Paul Scholes’ often risible attempts in that particular department being overlooked for what he brought to the team? It should serve as a reminder that Rooney had already scored one and set the tempo of the afternoon in order to banish any lingering hangover left from the Leicester debacle. A captain’s role?
Moreover, it has been suggested that Rooney’s indiscretion was, in fact, a premeditated decision, calculated to earn a pre-winter break following his and England’s ignominious display at the World Cup. Whilst it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some footballers pick up the odd yellow card to procure themselves the occasional day off, it is difficult to conceive of any footballer, let alone the captain of the world’s biggest team, orchestrating a prolonged spot of winter sun to satisfy an enlarged ego. Indicating a deep sense of pride and honour on being named as Louis van Gaal’s first captain, Rooney quickly avowed his gratitude “to the manager for the faith he has shown in me”. With van Gaal reciprocating by citing Rooney’s professionalism and attitude “to training and to my philosophy”, it would have been an incredibly brave man, you don’t get called the ‘Iron Tulip’ for nothing, to so flagrantly abuse the special status afforded by van Gaal to his captain at such an early stage in their working relationship. Perhaps we have chosen to forget Rooney’s willingness to perform a variety of roles, without complaint, putting the needs of the team before his own. Perhaps, Van Gaal has recognised these attributes and has decided to finally make the most of his undoubted talent in a central role as he enters, what are generally regarded, as the peak years of a footballer’s career.
Invariably cast to the wings to support the likes of Ronaldo and then latterly Robin van Persie, Rooney, through design or self appointment, has responded in kind by seizing the responsibility, and shouldering the burden, of finally becoming United’s talisman. The focal point, the inspiration others look to when things aren’t quite going according to plan. Only time will tell as to whether this role suits Rooney or more importantly whether he is the right man for the role but captaining isn’t a science. Robson, Keane even Vidic were mould breakers, Rooney should be his own man, who brings his own qualities to the role for better or for worse. First on the scene to congratulate the goal scorer or having a quiet word with a team mate as the celebrations go on, are perhaps two indications of Rooney’s natural approach to wearing the armband. Attempting to adopt the characteristics of an all action Robson or a snarling Keane, qualities if message boards, forums and twitter are to be believed, are essential or at least desirable elements of the job. Could, in the cold light of day, be classed as a mistake on Rooney’s part to live up to his illustrious predecessors and find acceptance amongst the hordes. A Quiet and understated approach to his new role, the Leicester remonstrations aside, have been evident, if somewhat overlooked, during Rooney’s brief tenure. If Louis van Gaal deems him as the right candidate maybe we should also afford him the necessary respect and time a skipper of Manchester United ought to rightly assume. Besides, is six games long enough to judge him on?
I would suggest a section of United’s support have allowed their view to be coloured and solidified by the messy transfer request sagas and the ill advised barracking of junior team mates to the point that minds will never be changed. However, perhaps the time has come for some of us to get past our narrow, prejudiced myopic views and judge Wayne Rooney’s contribution to the team in simple footballing terms.