Much like Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United career, the debate about the club captain’s position in the team goes on. And on. And on.
At times it feels like there could be a zombie apocalypse and still Rooney would turn out for United every week. Although, chances are the zombies would get so bored of the never-ending discussion about the Liverpudlian’s form that they’d stab themselves in the face just to get a quiet moment.
Prior to United’s win against Northampton Town on Wednesday evening, the mood around the club was indeed beginning to feel a little apocalyptic. Three defeats in a row had quelled any early season euphoria and talk of a title-challenge has been put firmly on the back-burner, for now at least.
Rooney was poor again against Northampton on Wednesday, despite playing in his favoured position against enthusiastic but hopelessly limited opponents. There had been a few raised eyebrows prior to kick-off when his name appeared on the team-sheet given that, otherwise, the lineup had a distinctly fringe-player feel to it.
Perhaps Jose Mourinho felt that Rooney’s presence was necessary to help avoid slipping on this potentially embarrassing banana skin. Or, just maybe, the Portuguese had already made up his mind to drop his captain for Saturday’s visit of champions Leicester City.
Time will tell, though Rooney can’t have done himself any favours on the night as, not for the first time this season, he had a stinker, as the game passed him by alarmingly.
Skewed shots, positional indiscipline, a poor first touch and wayward passing have long been the norm for the man who is so tantalisingly close to becoming United’s all-time leading goal-scorer, and you sometimes wonder whether the man whose record he is set to topple, Sir Bobby Charlton, even in his eighties, would struggle to influence games as much as Rooney.
It’s difficult to understand just what the three men who have managed the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement have seen in him. Ferguson himself saw the writing on the wall and made it as simple as he possibly could for his successor to discard him. Yet David Moyes and Louis van Gaal remained steadfastly enthralled by him until their bitter ends.
Mourinho, you imagine, will not. How can he when so much of his team’s best moments are squandered and slowed down when they reach his feet? And they’re not the only problem; his brain appears to have dulled dramatically, too, and it’s become a saddening experience to see him get increasingly frustrated on the pitch, not with inadequate teammates, as was the case in the past, but with his own glaring deficiencies. It must be torture for a player who was once perfectly at home in the company of the game’s best players to find himself such a clunking, clapped-out remnant of that former self.
That frustration often boils over into petulance and dissent, Rooney cutting an increasingly desperate figure as he tears about the pitch ineffectually and showers match-officials with bitter flecks of rage-infused spittle. None of that helps his team in the slightest and, though he may be a positive influence behind the scenes, his on-pitch leadership skills often leave you scratching your head. Indeed, it was Michael Carrick who brought calm and poise to proceedings against Northampton, while Rooney howled into the void.
Marcus Rashford’s emergence must be bittersweet for Rooney. While he’s no doubt thrilled for the youngster himself, he must realise that it is he who is under the greatest threat from United’s latest young superstar. Rashford isn’t just knocking on the door, he’s doing the footballing equivalent of Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ going at the door with an axe, peering through the gap at a cowering Rooney before declaring “Here’s Marcus.”
On the Thursday morning after the Northampton game there was a video doing the rounds on social media of a bloke referred to as ‘Keith from Wilmslow’ calling an MUTV phone-in show. Though there was the unmistakeable ache of desperation in his voice, Keith from Wilmslow was calm and collected, speaking eloquently about Rooney’s demise and continued presence in the team.
“Bryan Robson was a great player for Man United,” said Keith, “but he couldn’t come and play in midfield for us at this moment in time.” Studio guest, Sammy McIlroy squirmed uncomfortably in his seat as Keith continued, “We can’t keep going on about how great he’s been… because that just isn’t how football works.”
McIlroy, clearly incensed, retorted, “So you haven’t seen Rooney, then, doing what he’s done over the period of time at Manchester United?” Keith had seen what Rooney’s done and suggested that none of that matters because he’s no longer doing it, to which McIlroy, either not hearing or wilfully ignoring Keith said, “Well, okay, but you can’t overlook what he’s done.”
Then comes the killer line from the insistent Keith – “Any United fan can see he’s done nothing for two years at this club,” before McIlroy interrupts him with a despairing shake of the head, having clearly had enough of this dim-witted footballing Neanderthal. “Nah, nah, nah,” he says, “I disagree. I disagree with you.”
And there it is. The Rooney debate of the last three years in handy three minute microcosm. A player completely out of his depth at the top level of the game being picked solely on reputation and occasional moments when he gets things right. McIlroy’s reaction to this particular Wilmslow resident was that of a man living completely in denial, unwilling to face the fact that a once great player has reached the end of his useful life at the club.
It may be sad but Wayne Rooney’s continued presence in the United team is holding the club back, even as the debate rumbles on. But probably, thankfully, it might not be for much longer.