Way to go, Wayne!

In an age when English footballers are neglected by clubs in favour of foreign superstars, Wayne Rooney has earned unprecedented financial and symbolic recognition at a big club. Priyansh takes stock.

On February 22, Wayne Rooney completed 300 league matches for Manchester United when he was named in the starting line-up against Crystal Palace. As somebody remarked, 300 appears to be the magic number for him at the moment.

The reference was, of course, to his purported new weekly wage of GBP300,000. A day before the match against Crystal Palace, Rooney had committed himself to the club until June 2019. By the end of the deal, Rooney will be nearing 34 and apparently richer by GBP85 million. The striker will also become a club ambassador once he retires.

In one’s assessment of the deal, it would be wise to discard the significance of the ambassadorial role. Neither, it could be argued, does the pay hike matter. For moralising about the money earned by today’s footballers misses the point. In an industry where the top footballers are regularly paid sky-high salaries, market forces ensured that Rooney will be placed on the same pedestal.

But, although history will suggest otherwise, money should cease to be an incentive for Rooney at this stage of his career. One would assume that since he has always been among United’s biggest earners, Rooney would be more driven towards winning medals and trophies.

However, myriad factors have ensured it has never been so straightforward. While Rooney already must be a gozillionaire, players naturally seek to increase their earnings during their peak years. A sportsperson’s life is short and one has to make the most of it.

Moreover, Rooney has been one of United’s best players for a decade. If one were to take note of the salaries earned by other marquee players at big clubs, it’s only natural that he should expect his wages to be at the same level.

There are, though, unpleasant edges to this contract extension episode.

Some suggest Rooney has taken advantage of United’s current troubles on the field. As David Moyes carries out the biggest rebuilding operation since the early days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, he can ill-afford to lose his team’s biggest name.

Moreover, one doesn’t need to go far back in time to remember Rooney’s reluctance to stay at the club. In fact, it could be debated whether he bullied United into offering this deal. The prospect of losing him cheaply to a domestic rival like Chelsea was unacceptable for the club.

To his credit, Moyes has ensured that Rooney has smoothly reintegrated into the squad after the troubles in the summer. The England forward had harboured apprehensions over his future when Ferguson was in charge, but has been afforded VIP treatment since the legend retired from managerial duties.

In addition to playing Rooney in his favoured position as striker, Moyes has also ensured that the 28-year-old is among the first to know of transfer developments at the club.

It’s a sop that could work wonders for United if Rooney continues to deliver on the pitch.

But the length of the deal brings another set of problems for United. It has been known that Rooney tends to put on substantial weight during off-season. While it is easier for a young player to regain match sharpness and fitness, it could become a tougher task as he grows older.

Rooney’s ambition could prove to be a hindrance as well. In the current scenario, it seems unlikely that United will make the top four this season. For how long can Rooney suffer non-participation in the Champions League? Also, considering his high salary, wouldn’t it put pressure on the club’s wage bill and consequently weaken its potential to offer lucrative deals to transfer targets?

One assumes these questions will need to be answered convincingly for United to have a successful future.

Ironically, although Rooney began his career at Everton, he could find himself being named in the same breath as other United legends who were identified by the club’s name, if he finishes his career at Old Trafford. The question of loyalty is passionately debated in football circles and, funnily enough, Rooney may be remembered as a “one-club man.”

In this supremely talented footballer’s case, though, the idea of loyalty is severely distorted. United and Rooney’s association has seen manipulation of considerable degree from both parties. Let’s put it like this — you wouldn’t call it love.

Yet, on the pitch, Rooney has performed at an incredibly high level ever since he joined United. There were times when he wasn’t happy at the club, but nobody could accuse him of being unprofessional.

As Rooney nears Bobby Charlton’s all-time goals record (249) for United, he also nears immortality. Long after he’s gone, the club’s fans will revere him deeply. Yet, considering his tumultuous relationship with United over the past few years, it’s funny how the supporters’ perception of him has remained unaltered.

In terms of Rooney’s contract extension, though, there’s an aspect that has not been given due attention. In an age when English footballers are neglected by clubs in favour of foreign superstars, Rooney has earned unprecedented financial and symbolic recognition at a big club.

Currently, no other English team affords a similar status to a homegrown player. While footballers like John Terry and Steven Gerrard have become synonymous with Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, even they haven’t enjoyed similar financial benefits. It’s a credit to Rooney that he has carved such a spot for himself.

Now, he needs to prove that he’s worthy of such benefits.

On the day Rooney signed the new contract, he said, “I am convinced that this is the start of another successful chapter in Manchester United’s history.” For it to happen, Rooney will need to play an instrumental role once again.