Aside from the panic that ensued when Wayne Rooney released his statement in October 2010 revealing that he wouldn’t be signing a contract extension, the overriding feeling for me was embarrassment. I knew he was an Everton fan, I knew all about that ‘once a blue, always a blue’ t-shirt, but when he repeatedly talked about dreaming of spending the rest of his playing days at United, I believed him. Foolishly, I thought he got it, he understood what it meant to play at Old Trafford, and whilst he would never be a fan like us, he genuinely seemed to love the club.
“I am happy here and I’d sign a new contract at any time,” he said in October 2009. “I want to stay at this club for the rest of my career. I will sign an extension any time the club wants me to.”
No contract extension was ever signed though and with time running out on his current deal we were now under pressure to sell him. We were 3rd in the table at the time, 5 points behind Chelsea, and our most important player was heading for the exit.
“I met with David Gill last week and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad,” said Rooney in his statement. “I then told him that I would not be signing a new contract. My agent and I have had a number of meetings with the club about a new contract. During those meetings in August I asked for assurances about the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world. For me it’s all about winning trophies – as the club has always done under Sir Alex. Because of that I think the questions I was asking were justified.”
News quickly circulated that Rooney had been talking to Manchester City since the summer and they were prepared to make him far and away the best paid player in the country. City were under the impression that it was more or less a done deal, thanks to the Paul Stretford-Brian Marwood connection, with them seeing him as the “perfect signing”, strengthening themselves and weakening their opponents.
A couple of days later Rooney changed his mind and agreed a new five-year deal with the club. Some more cynical people would suggest the entire stunt was a way of getting more money out of the club but I just can’t see it. If he just wanted more money and didn’t want to leave, the Rooney camp wouldn’t have tried to fabricate a rift between the player and the manager in the press. It came from Ferguson’s claim that Rooney was struggling with an ankle injury ahead of a game for England.
“I’ve had no ankle problem all season,” he claimed. When asked as to why Ferguson had said he had an injury, Rooney replied: “I don’t know.”
Three weeks earlier Rooney was subbed off after an hour played at the Reebok stadium and sat with the subs with ice on his ankle, before missing the next two games against Valencia and Sunderland. We’d all seen it. This was just one of the many mistakes Rooney’s people made when trying to manoeuvre him away from the club.
Maybe the decision to sign an extension came from a genuine change of heart, but more likely he felt overwhelming pressure from the reaction of the press and fans. His agent had obviously convinced Rooney that if they pretended he had fallen out with the manager, like David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy, everyone would understand why he swapped United for City. They hadn’t accounted for Ferguson playing a blinder in the press conference though, talking about the great history of the club and how they would have done anything for Rooney to support him, as well as alluding to the fact he had been talking to another club behind our back. The reaction to Rooney’s statement from the press was one of disbelief, mocking Rooney’s claims that he wanted to move on because trophies were the priority for him. If there was any club that won a trophy more often than not, it was Manchester United.
Rooney ended the season by lifting the Premier League trophy, crowning United the most successful team in English history, after his penalty kick at Ewood Park confirmed we were champions for a record breaking 19th time. He also scored a goal in the European Cup final against Barcelona.
“I made a mistake,” he admitted afterwards. “When I look back at it now, I’ll say it again, how wrong was I? I’m willing to admit that. I’ve apologised and ever since then I have wanted to try to prove myself again to the fans. I feel I am doing that now.”
So, we’ve all moved on since then. I can’t speak on behalf of all reds but I know for me that my feelings on Rooney are different these days. He’s a quality player, I’d argue he is our most important, and I hope he stays at the club for as long as he’s good enough. When Rooney plays well, we tend to play well, and there can be no denying he’s as determined as any player to win. But he makes me cringe when he kisses our badge, as if he believes he can con us in to thinking it means something again.
What is interesting about Rooney’s statement in October 2010 is that people always refer to him claiming that we didn’t match his ‘ambition’. Whilst that is essentially what he was saying, he never actually used that word, but instead pointed to a lack of quality signings which would have an impact on how many trophies he would win.
We’ve gone on to sign the likes of Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, David de Gea, Ashley Young and Phil Jones, amongst others, and are looking in a great position to win the league this season. After missing out on the title on goal difference last season, we might be matching Rooney’s ‘ambition’ again this year. But if we are to win the title, how much credit will Rooney take?
There’s no denying that Van Persie is our star man now with him scoring for fun since making the move from Arsenal. He’s scored the winning goal against City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, and is the most exciting player we’ve seen for years. Cristiano Ronaldo blew us away and Eric Cantona was an inspiration but there’s something of both these players in Van Persie, with his ability to score so regularly and in such a graceful manner winning the fans over instantly. It’s his name that gets the loudest cheer now when the teamsheet is read out at the beginning of the game and his name we sing over and over again, two things Rooney could claim for himself before the Dutchman joined the club.
Whilst Van Persie has been flying high, Rooney has struggled for form this season, with a surprisingly low goal tally. More recently he has gone through a better patch and has crept in to the top ten scorers in the league, but still has only 14 goals in all competitions. It’s a far cry from the 25 goals he’d managed by March 8th last year.
Rooney’s performances haven’t drawn much attention from the press as he’s still been contributing, with nobody assisting more goals in the league than him this season, and when you’re 12 points clear, there’s no need to make a song and dance about one player’s form. However, in the fanzines and amongst fans there have been rumours for months that he is off sooner rather than later.
After going out with Evans and Gibson over Christmas last season, Rooney was dropped from the team that lost to Blackburn at Old Trafford. Had we picked up a point that day we’d have won the league. A couple of weeks later he scored twice against City in the Cup (and kissed our badge), in a run that saw him score 18 goals in 17 games. There was no time for Fergie to hold a grudge when Rooney was scoring goals that could have won us the league. But it’s hard to imagine that Ferguson had forgotten how Rooney had embarrassed the club.
You see, when Rooney was blaming the future squad for his reason for wanting off, he was more than likely talking about bolstering the central midfield, getting some quality on the wings after Ronaldo’s departure and singling out a top class replacement for Van der Sar. It probably never even crossed his mind that we’d sign one of the best players in England and in Germany, in Van Persie and Kagawa, and that he would have to fight for his place in the team. Post-Ronaldo, Rooney was meant to be our superstar, and as much as he wanted to win trophies, it’s unlikely he was imagining that we’d bring in a better striker than him. Whilst it’s clear Rooney’s contribution to the team is about more than goals, it’s hard to deny that Van Persie is a better footballer than him.
Still, Rooney had a chance to show the boss that he was up for it this season and that the signing of Van Persie would only serve to motivate him to work harder. It didn’t quite work out that way though, with Rooney returning from the pre-season overweight and unfit. It was painful watching him chug around the pitch at Goodison Park, out of breath and out of shape. Stories suggest that Ferguson was less than impressed and has had enough of Rooney always returning from International tournaments not at his best.
Rooney was left out of Real Madrid team, but are we to believe this is because of some fall out with the manager, because of what happened in October 2010, last Christmas and at Goodison Park? Personally, I can’t see it. Ferguson wants to win the European Cup and he’s not going to cut off his nose to spite his face. Simply put, Rooney isn’t playing very well and he didn’t do enough at the Bernabeu. Nani got the assist at Old Trafford, Giggs and Welbeck were our best players, and when Rooney came on he didn’t do an awful lot. Is there anyone arguing that dropping Rooney was the wrong decision? Without wanting to sound like Roy Hodgson, making lame excuses for not picking players who deserve to be played, Rooney was almost certainly left out for footballing reasons and if not for a bent Turkish referee, we would be in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, without Rooney’s help.
Still, after months of rumours the papers exploded when Rooney was dropped, seeing this as the perfect excuse to write about all the whispers they’d heard about the likelihood he was on his way out. It would be naive to believe the stories came from nowhere, that the only thing the journos had to base it on was his omission from the team, but just because the manager and Rooney aren’t best mates, it doesn’t mean he’s off. If his reaction to us taking the lead against Real Madrid is anything to go by, he’s hardly someone who is unhappy to be here. Likewise, the probability that Rooney was left out for footballing reasons doesn’t mean there’s no truth in the stories that he could leave in the summer.
Ferguson has obviously denied the stories today, claiming that Rooney will certainly be a United player next season, but what else would you expect him to say? If the manager genuinely planned to get rid of Rooney in the summer, would you expect to sit down to face the press today and say “you got me, you’re right, I’m getting rid of him”?
What is apparent now though is, which is different to the situation in 2010, it is the club that holds all the cards, whereas a few years back Rooney was in an incredibly powerful position. If Rooney leaves now it’s because the club has allowed it, just as it did Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo before him, whilst in 2010, he would have left the club with no choice but to sell him. Him joining City would have been absolutely devastating but reports this week suggest City aren’t sniffing around this time. Rooney was just 24-years-old when he released his statement about wanting out and would have been a huge coup for them then. Now, the player they’d want is Van Persie, and he’s already turned them down to play for us.
It’s easy to be reactionary now though, be bullish about it, say we don’t need him, but that’s daft. There have been plenty of strong links with 24-year-old Robert Lewandowski, who’s on 23 goals in 33 games this season for Borussia Dortmund, 30 in 47 last season, and if the manager reckons he’s a better option than Rooney, then so be it. But I don’t think we should let a few months of sub-standard performances, and possibly the realisation that he hasn’t fulfilled his potential in the way we thought he might, cloud our judgement. Rooney has a lot to offer this football club and when he’s on the top of his game it’s almost impossible to stop United. He makes things happen, he works his bollocks off and he’s a winner. One long-term injury to Van Persie, who spent all his seasons before us with the exception of one with lengthy spells out, and we’d be desperate for him to be playing for us, wondering how we could have ever been open to him leaving.
But the fact that plenty of fans are not really at all anxious about the prospect of Rooney leaving speaks volumes of how quickly his status within our squad has changed. A bigger issue is likely to be where he would go after United with, as Michael Owen rightly pointed out, so few clubs being able to match his wage demands (and ambition!). He tipped PSG as the favourite but with the 75% tax rates in France they’d have to pay him something like £20m a year to match what he’s on now. The Italian clubs won’t be able to afford him and you have to wonder whether the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona would be keen on a player that United didn’t need or want. Chelsea? Bayern Munich? He’s quickly running out of options.
Two and a half years ago he would have likely felt on top of the world, about to hit the peak of his career, with him getting his pick of clubs and salary. He got the most successful manager in the country to almost grovel on TV, expressing his confusion and disappointment with Rooney’s actions. He got a pay rise after his disloyalty and was welcomed back by the fans who were far too relieved that he didn’t leave us for City to bother with giving him stick every week. But now what does he have? Maybe he’ll realise how limited his choices are and show that the manager would be crazy to sell him, regardless of any personal differences. Or maybe he’ll respond to the challenge like he did in the summer, put on a load of weight, and make it easy for the manager to pick other strikers ahead of him.
But if there is a moral to this, it’s be careful what you wish for. The cow in the other field really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, eh Wazza.
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. Everyone who buys a copy enters a competition to win the new home shirt. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.