By Matthew Galea
Few players conjure such contradictory emotions from all football fans as Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney.
Only Rooney could break Sir Bobby Charlton’s long-standing all-time goalscoring record for Manchester United of 249 goals – which the United captain did with a brilliant free-kick against Stoke City on Saturday for his 250th United goal – and still face constant criticism and debate about his standing in the club’s history.
Somewhat predictably, the record was greeted with some rather disappointing commentary. For some United fans, the contract saga of 2010 and continuing dips in form since have seen Rooney’s standing among United supporters take a massive hit and now a player who would be universally lauded at any other club is given only begrudging acknowledgement for his outstanding contribution to United.
Despite that, there can be no arguing against the fact that Rooney has been the club’s most significant player over the course of his Manchester United career and for that reason alone United fans should revel in his outstanding achievement.
Since he arrived in 2004, no player has contributed as much to the United cause as Rooney – no matter how many speed bumps along the way.
Sure, there have been better players. Sure, there have been shocking runs of form. Sure, there have been tantrums, but none of that comes close to cancelling out 250 goals in 546 appearances, five Premier League titles, a Champions League triumph, a Club World Cup victory, two League Cups and most recently an FA Cup win.
Few players have offered so many iterations of themselves as Rooney, which perhaps adds to the constant confusion and debate among fans – of Manchester United or otherwise – about just how we should rate the 31-year-old’s career.
First there was the teenage sensation, when Rooney announced himself on the scene with an outrageous strike against Arsenal for Everton, his boyhood club, and became England’s golden boy in a remarkable Euro 2004 campaign.
It was the sort of potential that Sir Alex Ferguson just could not ignore and prompted the Scotsman to splash £25.6million on the teenager.
The Rooney United first signed was explosive, direct and combustible. His ability to inspire was only matched by his ability to incinerate in a fiery ball of anger and frustration – and there was plenty to be frustrated with as United struggled to return to Premier League champion status over his first two seasons at the club.
Above all, he was brilliant.
The fighter United lacked in the absence of Roy Keane and a much-needed second avenue to goal in a time where Ruud Van Nistlerooy was often United’s only reliable goalscorer. He was the white knight who was going to bring back Premier League glory to Manchester United.
On debut, Rooney scored the first three of what would become a record-breaking haul in a Champions League game against Fenerbache. From there everything was meant to be rosy.
For the most part, it has been.
Next came Wayne Rooney, the ultimate team player.
The Englishman – still carrying an element of the incendiary teen – would overcome World Cup heartbreak and a potentially team-destroying moment with team-mate and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo to forge an unstoppable partnership with the eventual Ballon D’or winner.
It meant curbing some of his more predatory instincts and habits to become a part of the supporting cast as Ronaldo – not Rooney – was handed the reins on the pitch to inspire United back to championship status.
Rooney never complained. Whether he had to play on the left wing to accommodate Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov’s arrival, whether he had to pass to Ronaldo instead of taking on the extra man or shooting himself, Rooney just got the job done.
Perhaps the Ronaldo era is Rooney’s most underrated time at the club.
Neither the volatile but brilliant centre of attention he was prior to the 2006-07 season, nor the never-ending headline he would become in the post-Ronaldo era, Rooney was arguably the glue that held United’s potent, three-time-Premier-League-winning and UEFA-Champions-League-winning attack together.
That is not to say the striker was not important to United’s cause – he scored plenty of important goals in those golden years – but it was his ability to produce results no matter where he was required that truly impressed and endeared him to United and Sir Alex alike.
In the years to come, Rooney would be labelled selfish and accused of putting himself ahead of the club, but his supporting role in arguably United’s best and most successful teams was crucial and should form a massive part of his legacy.
When Ronaldo departed Old Trafford his dream move to Real Madrid, Rooney was expected to fill the void and for the most part he did.
The 2009-10 season was his best from a goalscoring perspective at the time, as he scored 34 goals in 44 games across all competitions, leading United to a League Cup triumph and within one point of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea in the Premier League.
Finally, Rooney was the complete, free-scoring striker he was meant to be. He was going to stay forever and for most United fans, this was the season everyone was convinced that Rooney would go on to break Charlton’s record and become a United legend in the process.
With Sir Alex having finally built his Manchester United team around the central talents of Rooney, the United star made his move and pulled out all the stops for a record-breaking contract.
In October 2010, he informed his manager he wanted to leave United. Rooney even went as far to say it was ambition, not money, that had led him to this decision, citing doubts over the club’s long-term future.
Whether or not Rooney would have seriously considered a move to cross-town rivals Manchester City or Chelsea for that pay-cheque remains up for debate, but United were not going to tempt fate and secured their star on a new five-year deal.
The saga remains the single largest stain on Rooney’s Manchester United legacy – and could still prove the defining moment in his club career – in spite of everything he has achieved before and since then.
Even that season, despite the off-field troubles, it was Rooney’s return to form and perhaps the best of his 250 goals for the club that inspired United to a 19th English title. Still, United fans were left with a bad taste in their mouth and since, things have never really been the same.
He remained United’s best and most influential player in the attacking third and crucial to any hopes the club harboured of on-field success, but the relationship shifted.
The Rooney-United partnership became cold, clinical and all about business. While he is now United captain, one feels nothing has changed in that respect. The 19-year-old kid who would run through walls for the club became a 25-year-old seasoned professional.
It is interesting to contrast that with Ronaldo’s standing among United supporters. To this day, Ronaldo’s name is sung by the Old Trafford faithful, yet he was every bit as guilty of holding United to ransom and trying to force a move away from the club on multiple occasions.
The only difference is that Ronaldo actually followed through with his move – and he’s been scoring goals and winning titles with Real Madrid since.
Roy Keane and Rio Ferdinand are another two names that spring to mind who similarly held out for the best possible deals they could get, yet bother remain revered by United supporters for the most part, so perhaps time will heal these wounds for Rooney as well.
What has not helped Rooney has been his largely indifferent form since.
Since his 34-goal haul in 2009-10, Rooney has only managed one other 20-plus goal season, which came in 2011-12 as United finished second to Manchester City on goal difference when he matched his previous record of 34 goals.
The striker reverted to a supporting role with the acquisition of Robin van Persie in 2012, which he excelled in as the Dutchman inspired United to a 20th league title in what would prove Ferguson’s last season in charge of the club. At the end of the season, ahead of his retirement, Ferguson reported that Rooney had once again handed in a transfer request with Chelsea interested in his services
Those rumours were quashed by Rooney – who denied having handed a second transfer request – and Ferguson’s replacement David Moyes eventually secured the striker on a new deal in February 2014.
Moyes and subsequent manager Louis van Gaal both made Rooney central to their plans, with the latter installing Rooney as captain, but neither could coax his old form from him, nor could they seem to work out where they wanted him to play. Rooney to his credit took whatever was thrown at him, playing as deep as a number six to as far forward as his usual number nine role, but there was little doubting his best years were behind him.
With form no longer making Rooney indispensable, the common view was that it was his massive salary and standing within the club that made him a nailed on starter.
Still, the limited success United have enjoyed since the Ferguson reign ended has been somewhat attributable to Rooney. Last May, it was only when Rooney stepped up a gear that his team-mates found another level within themselves to come from behind and snatch a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final.
Now, under Jose Mourinho, Rooney can no longer rely on his standing alone to guarantee him first-team football at Manchester United
Mourinho has proven the only manager brave enough to play Rooney on merit, and it has been to the captain’s benefit. The Portuguese manager is extracting all the good he can from Rooney – he remains a positive influence on the team and has performed well without the pressure of being the main man – while effectively limiting his playing time without causing mass outrage from Rooney or the first-team squad.
The shift means Rooney can potentially add another five years to his Manchester United career, should be continuously willing to accept a reduced role in the first-team as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs did before him.
If he can continue to produce as a bit-part player for United, Rooney could potentially finish his United career closer to the 300-goal mark than the 250 mark and as much as he achieved in his career, there are few better examples than Zlatan Ibrahimovic – now Rooney’s team-mate – to show just how long one can prolong their importance to a team as big as United.
Regardless of what lies ahead for Rooney at United, there is no denying that his legacy as an absolute great of Manchester United is well and truly sealed.
The club’s all-time leading goalscorer and at least one winner’s medal for every competition he has represented the club in, with the exception of the Europa League, is more than enough to seal Rooney’s place in Manchester United’s history.
He may not always cover himself in glory, or be the ultimate club man that Scholes, Giggs or Gary Neville was, but his gluttony of goals, records and achievements will live longer in the memory than his contract battles.