A star, but not yet a United legend

Wayne Rooney... reaching a milestone.-AP

As games and goals are always used as a statistical yardstick to judge greatness, Wayne Rooney, irrespective of the future, has firmly established his position among footballing greats, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Wayne Rooney — you love him or you hate him — has made it impossible for the world, not just Manchester United supporters, to be mere mute bystanders. Be it his foibles, his brush with authority, or his prodigious talent, he has continually ensured that you and I wake up and take notice.

Suffering from a classic case of headline-grabbing syndrome, the Merseyside lad has always made for a good copy, be it for a looked-down-upon tabloid writer or a glorified armchair critic.

His recent twin strikes in a Champions League group stage game against Bayer Leverkusen, took his United goal count to the double century mark, reigniting debates about him emerging as the record-English champion’s greatest goal-getter. Rooney (201) is now fourth on the list, behind Jack Rowley (211), Denis Law (237) and Sir Bobby Charlton, who tops the chart with 249 goals.

Just a month shy of his 28th birthday, the milestone is well within Rooney’s reach — fitness, form permitting and of course if he is coaxed enough to stay put.

Since August 2011, only Robin van Persie has scored more goals (73) than Rooney (54) for an English Premier League club, a fact, which has helped United supporters forget (but probably not forgive) his open defiance and eagerness to leave Old Trafford at the start of this season.

Against all odds, if the England international decides to stay on at United for the rest of his career he should also substantially add to his tally of 407 games, possibly joining the exclusive 700-plus club appearances. With five league titles and a Champions League victory, his trophy cabinet is impressive.

As games and goals are always used as a statistical base to judge greatness, Rooney, irrespective of the future, has firmly established his position in that pantheon.

But, despite these rich returns in the United Red, the striker has failed to endear himself to the Old Trafford faithful and might still fall way short of making the grade as a Manchester United legend. Unlike players such as George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Law, Sir Bobby and a few more, he may never ever hear the Stretford End singing his name, years from now.

This, probably, because of the huge chasm between his on and off field status. Rooney’s constant run-ins with Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest of United legends, his well-documented but badly-orchestrated and failed transfer coups have done very little to raise his stock. The protracted 2010 drama, when he had handed over a transfer request to the then manager Sir Alex, and was contemplating a possible move to city rival Manchester City, had turned most United supporters against him. And the Old Trafford stands had vociferously let their discontent known. This time round, the fans, however, have been more merciful.

His goal-scoring exploits on the field have been the right balm for the scorched hearts and all have realised his value in a team looking to tide over a transition. Times correspondent Oliver Kay’s words on Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United in 2008, prior to his move to Real Madrid, can be the right analogy here again: “It was a rocky marriage, but the sex was great.”

The apparent reluctance of the moneyed clubs in the world (except Chelsea and Jose Mourinho) to vie for his signature this summer (conceivably because of his off field baggage and high salary demands) should have come as a reality check to the forward.

Rooney is no longer the player he once used to be. At 27, expected to be approaching his prime, he looks old at times, scarred by the rigours of playing uninterrupted for a decade now. Sometimes he is ill at ease, far away from enjoying the game, with smiles forced and only a distant shadow of his glorious past. Yet, Rooney remains the premium English attacking player (or even the best English player) of his generation by a length, but is definitely no longer United’s premium star.

Dutch international van Perise, a summer signing last term, has replaced him as the club’s first choice striker, a point made clear by new manager David Moyes (despite all his efforts to backtrack later). And for a petulant Rooney — who, irrespective of the goal gluttony in 2009-10 and 2011-12, had his best seasons in service with Ronaldo — it has been a tough message to accept. Rather than enjoying the company of a world-class talent, as he did with Ronaldo, Rooney has been childish, throwing tantrums, never looking forward to forging a lasting, lethal combination with the Dutchman. Perhaps he’s worried of not living up to his potential.

But now, at last, he seems to have evaluated his stand: “I have put my head down and worked hard and tried to do everything right. I have tried to show the right attitude. I have always felt that’s a really important thing to do. That’s paying off for me on the pitch. I feel fit and ready to do well.”

His recent form has shown promise and if he can hold on to it, they will play his music in the Old Trafford stands (for the time being at least), a death bugle for competitors and detractors alike.