London-What seems remarkable now is how uncontroversial the issue of Wayne Rooney’s departure from Manchester United has come to feel. This is, after all, a player who started United’s first five league games of the season, a run of games that suggested he was a first-choice. Perhaps José Mourinho really did see him as such, or maybe he was playing a clever political game, but either way Rooney has faded to the extent that the suggestion he will start Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Southampton on the bench provokes little comment.
There is a tendency to portray Mourinho as a great Machiavellian spider, forever spinning his webs of intrigue, never doing anything without some ulterior motive. But, if his aim this season was to prove that Rooney is not good enough for a place in the first team and to shuffle him without fuss out of the door, then he has succeeded magnificently.
Or at least he has if you look only at the issue of Rooney’s probable exit. There is also an argument that, if Mourinho had managed to integrate Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the team earlier, United might have been able to mount more of a Premier League title challenge. But then perhaps it is also true that Mkhitaryan needed time to settle and that the two processes happen to have dovetailed.
What is clear is that the Rooney issue is no longer an issue. Rooney has started only three of United’s past 20 league games; the noteworthy thing now is if he plays. Although Rooney has gone past Sir Bobby Charlton’s club scoring record – removing a sentimental reason for him to stay – he has scored only two Premier League goals all season.
With Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard all apparently ahead of him in the pecking order, Paul Pogba able to take on a more advanced position and the probability of another forward – Antoine Griezmann? – arriving in the summer, it is hard to see where he has a role, other than as a back-up if the combination of FA Cup and Europa League makes United’s fixture list particularly congested. One of Mourinho’s first significant acts on taking over as manager was to head off any possibility of Rooney having a place in midfield.
So where now for the 31 year old? He could, of course, stay at Old Trafford – as he indicated he would with a statement on Thursday – and keep picking up his £300,000 a week until his contract expires in the summer of 2019 but the sense is that he wants to play and, if he is to retain his place in the England team, of which, it is easy to forget, he remains captain, he needs to play. It would be nonsense to say that money is of no concern to him but the impression during his occasionally fraught negotiations with United was always that it was more about status than about the cash itself.
No top Premier League club is going to be interested, not for the wages Rooney would presumably still expect. He may favour a sentimental return to Everton but there is no evidence of that being reciprocated. Perhaps he could reawaken ideas of becoming some sort of deep-lying playmaker at a lesser club but realistically who out of those that could afford him would want him? More than ever Premier League football these days is about dynamism; Rooney is not. As Sir Alex Ferguson observed recently, he is not a Ryan Giggs: at 31 his body has begun to fail him.
So then one begins to look further afield, which immediately brings its own issues. Home for Rooney is very clearly the north-west of England. He has never lived anywhere else and has never suggested he had much interest in doing so. How willing, really, is he going to be to uproot himself and his family?
And who would sign him? Not Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético. Not Bayern or Paris Saint-Germain. An Italian club, perhaps, might see some boost in status in having him but realistically that diminished pace is going to be an issue wherever he goes in Europe. Which leaves the United States, the Middle East or China. The US at least offers a more familiar culture but, as Steven Gerrard could tell him, the MLS can be a slog. China, anyway, has come to seem the most probable option.
Perhaps Rooney could become a legend in Jiangsu or Tianjin and enjoy a late-career flourish. Perhaps he could thrive in unfamiliar conditions, freed from the constraints of routine and expectation. But more likely a move to China would simply be retirement deferred, a means of extending his earning power. That is a matter for him and his financial advisers; in terms of legacy and how he will be remembered, Rooney is essentially done.
All-time top scorer for club and country, winner of five league titles and a Champions League, his career will perhaps be judged more kindly by history than at the present. But for anybody who witnessed the thrill of seeing him burst through defences at Euro 2004, there will always be a sense that he has not quite lived up to his extraordinary early promise. And all the trophies in China are not going to change that.
On Friday, Mourinho confirmed Rooney will be in Manchester United’s League Cup Final squad against Southampton after the club’s record goal scorer declared he will remain at Old Trafford for the rest of the season.