66 seconds. That was how long it took for Wayne Rooney to give Manchester United the lead in Munich almost exactly a year ago today. It was his 34th goal of the season, and it came at a time when United was chasing success in the Premier and Champions Leagues, and there was genuine optimism that Rooney would lead England to glory at the World Cup. 90 minutes later, and United had lost with Rooney carried off the field with an ankle injury, leaving United fans to fear that the club’s chances of success had evaporated. To suggest selling Rooney at that point, you would have to have been mad, or one of the Glazers.
But events in the last 12 months have led many to question Rooney’s future at the club, despite the signing of a new contract worth a reported £240,000 a week, despite the striker’s recent improved form
There are many reasons why United shouldn’t sell Rooney of course.
First, the 25-year-old is still a player who can influence big games. His recent goal at Stamford Bridge. THAT overhead kick. The weekend hat-trick at West Ham United. Rooney retains the ability to make something happen in a game, and for all the heavy touches, the sluggishness, and seeming lack of interest, there is simply no-one else in United’s that offers all of this.
Rooney still carries an aura that creates fear in opponents; they know he can single-handedly win games, or lift the crowd with a moment of inspiration.
Third, despite the transfer request and utterly contemptible actions back in October, Rooney still has a place in the hearts of many fans. The banners that sent a strong message about where the fans’ loyalty lay in the aftermath of the game against Bursaspor have long gone, and now the former Evertonian’s name is sung louder than any other at Old Trafford once again.
Supporters, like a cheated partner, know what he did, but are simply trying their best to go back to normal. The betrayal will always be there, but letting go would still be painful, because regardless of everything that has happened, Rooney has come to represent the beating heart of the club since Roy Keane retired.
Despite this, there are some compelling reasons for selling Rooney this summer.
For all of Rooney’s half-hearted apologies, he will never undo what happened in October. A simple look back at that turbulent week shows that he didn’t merely ask to leave the club, but he treated the club, the manager, and his team-mates with disdain. It started with the leaked stories to the press. The story first broke late on the Sunday night on Twitter –journalists had been briefed by Rooney’s people and there was talk of his relationship with Ferguson being beyond repair. Before that, there was the saga of his injury; an injury which he had publicly denied existed before the big story broke. His form and his own words since have proved this a lie.
Then there was that press conference. The press release where Rooney – who fans were told had broken off talks over a new contract that he had instigated months earlier – tried to shift the story to being about ambition, citing a lack of investment in the team and a lack of assurance about the club’s ability to attract top players. It was a carefully managed script, and it was delivered just two hours before a Champions League match.
The financial situation at the club is well known, and many people have given a better insight than this article will, but Rooney’s attempts to win the moral argument were spectacularly misguided. Not many supporters believed the striker then, nor believe him now.
Indeed, Ferguson himself rebutted Rooney’s claims about ‘ambition’ that same night, responding when questioned about Rooney’s comments, by asking: “have I won 30 trophies or what?” Ferguson’s response and his plea to fans to trust him with the future of the club was more re-assuring, more convincing than Rooney’s attempt to backtrack on his position and become a martyr for the fans disillusioned with the Glazers ownership of the.
The whole saga left a bitter taste in the mouth. Rooney’s betrayal seemed far worse than Cristiano Ronaldo’s. Ronaldo had always been clear that he wanted to play for Real Madrid; Rooney said he wanted to stay at United for life. No matter how many overhead kicks he scores, he will never undo what happened that week. His name will never be as revered as Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona or Roy Keane.
But whilst it is possible to argue that, with the episode in the past, supporters should move on – after all, even Keane had a very public dispute with the club over a contract ten years ago– there is another, less emotive reason why the club should consider selling the player.
Last season, in a team that had lost Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Rooney was simply brilliant. For much of the season, a side that lacked real creativity relied almost solely on Rooney’s goals, and would probably have won a fourth consecutive league title but for the player’s injury. Throughout that season, Rooney predominantly played as a lone striker, particularly after Christmas, when he scored an inordinate amount of headed goals. For the first time in his career, Rooney demonstrated what he could do when a team was built around him.
But this season a combination of factors has seen Rooney play increasingly deeper role. At the start of the season Sir Alex Ferguson finally decided to play Dimitar Berbatov in the position that he occupied at Tottenham – closer to goal – and has been rewarded with 21 goals so far this season, his best return for the club. Also, as the season has progressed, Javier Hernandez has gone from impact sub to challenging for a regular place in the starting 11. The Mexican’s strength is high up the pitch, on the shoulder of the last defender. Both players have exceeded Rooney this season, and whilst neither has scored as many goals as Rooney did last season, each has contributed to a team that is better balanced and less predictable.
The pair’s form has seen Rooney pushed either out wide, or into an old-fashioned ‘no. 10’ position recently; arguably two positions he is not fully equipped to play in. He is a good passer, but not great. His movement is excellent, but his positional sense is not – too often Rooney drifts when he doesn’t see the ball. The days of Rooney beating a defender with pace and power are long gone. He is capable in those positions, but does not excel.
All of this leaves Ferguson with a dilemma. Does he sacrifice Berbatov and Hernandez to let Rooney lead the line again, whilst at the same time adding another barrier to the first team for the promising Danny Welbeck? Or does he do something more controversial, and sell his one-time star player, and evolve a new team without him?
The latter choice is not without precedent. Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince were sold and replaced with Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. Keane was replaced by a completely different player in Michael Carrick. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was not even replaced, Ferguson instead trusting Ronaldo to step up. Ronaldo was replaced by Antonio Valencia and a resurgent Nani. Each time the team evolved, forging a new identity and a new way of playing.
The need for some reinforcements in midfield is long debate and the club has been linked with bids for Jack Rodwell, Wesley Sneijder and Javier Pastore among others. That is for the summer – what we do know is that Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and probably Scholes will all be at the club next season (the first three having all signed new contracts recently, and an offer is likely to be made to Scholes), but all of them are more comfortable playing deeper in midfield. If United sells Rooney, and buys an attacking midfielder of genuine quality to play behind Berbatov or Hernandez to link the midfield and attack, the same process of evolution could take place again.
Certainly, there is much evidence that Ferguson prefers a 4-2-3-1 system or one of its derivatives; a player in the mould of Mesut Ozil, or the aforementioned Sneijder, would fit into that set-up.
We have heard much about the talents of some of the younger players at the club. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have been impressive at Sunderland and Wigan Athletic respectively, Federico Macheda is still to fulfil his potential. Next in line are genuinely brilliant prospects in Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison. Perhaps moving Rooney on, with all the baggage he has accumulated, will allow some of these youngsters – along with an astute signing or two – to shape the evolution of the next, and potentially Fergie’s last, great United side.