For a club that leads the world in commercial partners, with exclusive deals with official potato snacks, special logistics partners, tie-in diesel engine companies and even affiliated official office equipment suppliers, it’s perhaps something of a surprise that Swansea City haven’t been approached to become Manchester United’s official opponents for competitive managerial debuts.
After all, the Swans were the first Premier League team that David Moyes faced in his league game in charge in 2013. A year on and the opening fixture of the new season at Old Trafford feels like a reboot rather than a sequel, with Louis van Gaal having expunged the presence of his predecessor on the training field and in the press conferences. The Dutchman carries an air of confidence, confrontation and unconventional positivity. A back three has suddenly appeared as the de facto defensive set up and the club’s traditional wing play has been shelved with surprisingly little protest from the fans.
Yet there is at least one thread of continuity between United’s new boss and Moyes: Wayne Rooney is front and centre as the team’s talismanic key player. Van Gaal has even made him captain, seemingly confirming his status as the club’s most pivotal individual following on from the new, extravagant contract signed by the striker last season.
Even after a summer of sweet talking and reassurance last year however, Rooney looked like a man apart from his squad mates as he trudged off alone at the end of United’s 4-1 victory over Swansea. It’s hard to imagine him behaving so disinterested and sulky this season as he steps out with the captain’s armband strapped around his left bicep.
“Welcome to Vanchester” reads the billboard on Lever Street. It seems as though Rooney has already been convinced to become a permanent resident, with his reaffirmed status and purpose built slot in the team’s new 5-3-2 or 3-4-1-2 system—whichever way you wish to notate it. With Van Gaal regarded by many back in his homeland as the arch-pragmatist of the Dutch school and total football, it’s quite possible that his show of faith in Rooney has been more political than sincere, but whatever the truth may be regarding his motives, it’s unlikely to matter.
A happy Rooney is more often than not a productive Rooney. Under Moyes he became the only player to record double figures for goals and assists in five separate Premier League seasons, a feat not to be sniffed at.
Sure, he may be an easy target to mock. His shoddy first touch, fluctuating waistline and charmless tactics at the negotiating table are all easy, close-at-hand criticisms that put plenty of noses out of joint but whether he’s hated or adored, Rooney is almost always able to create goals or score.
But just as he as a player has transformed over the years to become more blunt and almost cynically effective, his reputation with many fans has shifted from that of an emotionally relatable hero to merely becoming a human tool through which trophies can be accumulated. These days he’s a useful asset that some would even prefer sold rather than the favoured adopted son he could have become in years gone by, prior to the transfer requests and under-the-table flirtations with Manchester City. It’s a complicated relationship.
Still, his creativity and goals will be vital if United are to heave themselves back up into the top top four and beyond. Even if he is to be a player many love to hate, his talent is still immense regardless of the increasingly frayed edges of his fitness and finesse that can get in the way of his vision on the pitch.
It’s fitting that the title to Stereophonics’ 2001 album, “Just Enough Education To Perform”, is inked onto his forearm. His mental abilities have allowed him to coast through the game at times, with his superior timing and awareness on the pitch sometimes allowing him to compensate for his fading pace and technique. For those who watched him as a teenager, rampaging about the Premier League as a stocky but skilful combatant, taking on defenders and barrelling across the turf, he looked capable of becoming one of the true greats. Some even rated him higher than Cristiano Ronaldo. A sense of tragedy now follows him in the minds of his greatest past admirers: like teachers mourning their failure to instil some drive into a lazy genius unable to maximise their own promise unaided.
Rooney and his more realistic supporters may dispute that narrative. When Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson sought to replace the Portuguese’s goal threat by turning his most versatile attacker into the team’s focal point. Prior to that, Rooney had become one of the most intelligent, selfless and hard-working forwards in Europe. He was a catalyst, full of movement on and off the ball, who tracked back down the left, pulled defenders out of position and threaded clever balls through from the byline and midfield.
To become United’s first-choice striker however, he needed to start thinking like a front-man, and gain the inflated ego of a No. 9. Once that genie was out of the bottle however, there was no way he was going to return to his former role as the co-star kingmaker rather than the leading man. He still dropped deep to recover the ball, but going forward had had become more selfish. He had to in order to create the supply to meet the team’s demands.
In the front two of van Gaal’s new system, he will be freed to become this pure goal scorer rather than the compromise player stuck between two era’s that he looked like in Sir Alex’s last year and during Moyes’ doomed tenure. He only needs 34 goals to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton as United’s all-time top scorer, but even that feat may ultimately be a distasteful outcome to those who will never see Rooney in the same light again.
As he steps out onto the Old Trafford turf against Swansea, wearing the armband that once belonged to Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Bryan Robson, it’ll be a sight many will rationalise in the mind rather than feel in the heart.