In making it to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Wales have enjoyed a better success rate in the knockout stages of a major tournament than England have been able to manage in 20 years. Throughout that time, various figures have been unreasonably scapegoated by the British press and vilified throughout the stadiums of England – the likes of David Beckham (1998), David Seaman (2002), Darius Vassell (2004), Wayne Rooney (2006) and Rob Greene (2010) have all returned home needing to redeem their tarnished reputations.
While some of those named descended into ignominy for the remainder of their careers, Beckham and Rooney used the heavy-handed criticism as motivating tools. Indeed, just one year after his sending off against Argentina in St. Etienne, Beckham was celebrating a historic treble with Manchester United – his performances pitting him a close second to Rivaldo in the Fifa World Player of the Year Awards. Eight years later, Rooney experienced similar hatred before spearheading United’s assault on the Premier League. With Rooney in tandem with Cristiano Ronaldo, the club regained the title for the first time in three seasons despite the loss of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Given that he is England’s all-time record goalscorer, Rooney will inevitably go down as one of England’s greatest players, but many will point to the reality that he has done little more than lead an English side home prematurely from a major tournament.
Although he burst onto the scene at Euro 2004, Rooney has led the line for his country at five subsequent tournaments, failing to breach the quarter-final stage whilst his most noteworthy contribution in front of goal was a tap-in in the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Brazil. On Wednesday evening, as Ronaldo led Portugal out in Lyon to face Wales, Rooney may have sat pondering whether he has finally run out of chances to emerge from beneath another underwhelming campaign in the England shirt.
Following his sending off against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, Rooney undoubtedly benefitted from the experiences gleaned by Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of the vitriol dished out to Beckham in 1998. As with Beckham, Ferguson thrust Rooney onto the pitch rather than protecting him from the baying mobs. The best way for Rooney to answer his detractors was on the field of play. But that was a different time in Manchester.
In August 2006, Rooney was entering into his third season at Old Trafford and very much at the heart of Ferguson’s plans. With the sale of van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid, it was clear that Ferguson was building a new side around Rooney’s strength and energy and the dazzling ability of Ronaldo. Even when Ronaldo finally followed van Nistelrooy to the Bernabeu, Rooney revelled in filling the void with some of the best goalscoring exploits of his career.
However, Rooney is no longer the main man.
At 30, Rooney should be at the height of his peak. As captain of both club and country and with Bobby Charlton’s 249 goals firmly in sight, theoretically the hopes of Manchester United’s immediate future should be resting on his shoulders rather than those of a man in his mid-30s and two youngsters barely out of puberty.
Where Rooney fits in José Mourinho’s plans are intriguing. Speaking at his first press conference at the helm of United earlier this week, the Portuguese said:
“One thing that will never change is his natural appetite to put the ball in the net. Maybe he is not a striker, not a No. 9 anymore. But with me he will never be a No. 6, playing 50m from goal.
“Yes, his passing is amazing but mine is also amazing without pressure. Many players have a great pass, but to put the ball in the net is the most difficult. He will be a No. 9, a No. 10, a No. 9.5, but never a No. 6 or a No. 8.”
It would appear then that while the midfield experiment was fleeting, Mourinho is nevertheless reluctant to pin his colours to any particular mast. On the face of it, Rooney’s move into midfield was merited. With his pace failing and his usual composure in front of goal lacking, he sought to impose himself on fixtures from a different perspective.
Ever since Paul Scholes opted to hang up his boots, United have missed a player with the ability to make the killer pass. With an apparent unwillingness to delegate, Rooney felt obliged to take up that same role and was therefore found to drop deeper in an effort to provide that cutting edge. This exhibited a naivety in his captaincy – yet it suited Louis van Gaal. With the emergence of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, the Dutchman had suddenly found the pace and potency that Rooney no longer possessed. In a similar vein, Rooney became the fourth-choice striker for England as Hodgson turned to Harry Kane, with Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge his able deputies.
Having begun the last campaign with a threadbare strike force, United now possess one of the most exciting attacking players in the Premier League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will bring a mercurial presence to Old Trafford once again, while Rashford and Martial will learn a great deal from the Swede. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will hope to carry his Bundesliga form into the Premiership, while Memphis Depay will be given an opportunity to prove a point by Mourinho.
Rooney’s career at United is far from over, but it is far from certain what role he will be given to play and when he will play it. Given his recent scoring record, it is unlikely that Mourinho will trust Rooney to drive United’s challenge, especially considering that Ibrahimovic notched 50 goals for Paris St. Germain last season. With Ibrahimovic providing a focal point, space will be created in the wider areas for the likes of Martial et al to prosper – Rooney’s over eagerness to get involved tended to clutter the same zones.
Many question whether Rooney has suffered a form of burn-out from a career that has already seen him tally almost 600 senior appearances. Since he ended Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run as a well developed 16-year-old for Everton in 2002, he has been the great hope for British football, leading the charge for every team in which he has played. Whether 2016 represents the beginning of the end for Wayne Rooney is anyone’s guess, but what cannot be denied is that he is no longer the player that relentlessly put fear in the eyes of his wary opposition.