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Wayne Rooney’s Years at Top Take their Toll on Manchester United Captain | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Wayne Rooney injured right ankle ligaments at Bayern Munich in 2010, was expected to be out for three weeks, but played in the second leg a week later. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

London – They changed the format of the press conferences at Manchester United some time ago. For the past 10 years or so, everything has been in front of the cameras and the managers, as such, always tend to put on their face for television, remember to mind their language and often disguise, or water down, what they really feel. It is a PR world more than ever before, but it used to be much better fun in the old days when Sir Alex Ferguson held separate briefings, the cameras turned off, where he could go off-record, show a bit more of his real personality and occasionally fly into the kind of rages that had to be seen to be believed.

He certainly didn’t pussyfoot around the subject when it came to Wayne Rooney and the questions that occasionally came up about the striker’s febrile temper (nobody questioned Rooney’s performances back then, just the occasional controversies). The time, for example, when Rooney was being investigated by the Football Association for pushing his hand into the face of Tal Ben Haim, then at Bolton Wanderers. Ferguson was so enraged about it being brought up that day he machine-gunned 22 F-words in our direction in roughly 45 seconds.

That press conference ended with him swinging his arm at the tape recorders on his table to send them flying into a wall 10 feet away. “You’ve got me to lose my temper, wonderful,” was his parting shot, pointing to the door to chuck us out, the flares burning behind his eyes.

It would be great television but José Mourinho’s responses have to be couched with more restraint now it is his turn in the seat and Rooney is at that point of his professional life where he is finding out the hard way, as most sportsmen do at one point or another, that age can often be the toughest opponent.

History will remember Rooney as the man who took Sir Bobby Charlton’s 249-goal record as the most prolific scorer in the club’s history (he is currently three behind). He has already replaced Charlton as England’s highest scorer and is nine caps short of Peter Shilton’s record of 125, to go with five Premier League titles, one Champions League, one FA Cup and two League Cups. Whatever you think of the modern-day Rooney, however much time has passed since the crowds at United longed for the ball to be at his feet, statues have been put up for players of less achievement – including at Old Trafford.

At the same time, there is no point pretending all is right when the player in question has become a national debate and it does strike me that Mourinho might be more worried than he lets on.

Rooney turns 31 next month and in his profession that is not exceptionally old by any means. He is younger, by eight months, than Cristiano Ronaldo. Teddy Sheringham was 33 when he flicked out a leg to score for United in the 1999 Champions League final and Rooney’s absence from Thursday’s defeat against Feyenoord, with Mourinho stating his captain needed some rest, did slightly jar with Zlatan Ibrahimovic being on the trip, only a couple of weeks before his 35th birthday.

Yet, in football, it is not always as straightforward as comparing one man’s age with another. Rooney was 16 when he made his Premier League debut in 2002 and has never gone a season without playing at least 42 games. It has been a long old slog and heaven knows how many marathons he has run in that time. The workload was always going to tell eventually. Dick Allen, the old baseball player, had a neat way of putting it. “Your body is like a bar of soap,” he said. “The more you use it, the more it wears down.”

That does not mean Rooney is ready for the knacker’s yard just yet but it does make the questions legitimate about whether he is capable any longer of winning games at high altitude. And if Mourinho isn’t worried, he probably should be. The old Rooney could topple the very best. The modern version does his best work now at a lower level and, deep down, I suspect the new England manager knows it, too. “Most players perform at their best for only a decade,” Sam Allardyce writes in his autobiography. “If you are in the team at 17, you tend to start declining after the age of 27. There are exceptions, but not many. A player’s body suffers throughout those 10 years, especially if you’re an international. The body is bound to crumble when you think of the equation, 60 games times 10 years, with only three or four weeks off each summer.”

Allardyce uses Joe Cole as an example to make his point. “Maybe the wear and tear caught up with him,” he concludes. “He was only 17 when he made his Premier League debut and had played 150 games for West Ham by the time he was 21.” That is still a long way short of Rooney, though. At 21, Rooney had made well over 200 appearances for club and country. Today, it stands at 718. And Rooney is not Ryan Giggs. He is built differently, he has lived differently and, in his peak years, he has run down his opponents with uncommon levels of raw physical commitment.

Rooney has also put his body on the line, bearing in mind some new detail that I heard recently about the night in April 2010 when United faced Bayern Munich in the Champions League, 2-1 down from the first leg in Bavaria, and the sheer desperation for him to play, even with damaged ankle ligaments.

You might remember the shock when Rooney was named in the starting lineup (the medical prognosis was he would be out for up to three weeks). On the pitch, he was restricted to running in straight lines. He had to be substituted 10 minutes into the second half and missed the following league game against Blackburn. What you might not realise, however, is that Rooney, an incredibly selfless footballer sometimes, agreed to give it a go despite still being on crutches, wearing a protective boot, on his way to Old Trafford. Compare that with the suspicion in United’s dressing room last season that one player had pulled out of a game because he “didn’t fancy it” only to train perfectly normally the following day.

Rooney has worn strapping on that right ankle ever since and these are the details that sometimes go amiss when opinion turns against him. Perhaps, in that respect, he is unfortunate that his 14 years in the Premier League have taken in the age of social media. Few things on Twitter invite such a froth of condemnation as daring to type a few words of praise on his behalf.

Compilation videos pop up on the internet after each match to highlight his mistakes. One showed England’s captain losing the ball three times in succession against Hull City and, yes, it was grim to watch – though there was nothing of his run to set up Marcus Rashford’s late winner.

Rooney’s contribution in last season’s FA Cup final also seems to have been airbrushed out of history by his more dedicated critics, many of them supporters of his own club. “Why does he continue to be unloved and unpopular among so many MUFC fans?” Sam Pilger, a writer and author with a large portfolio of United-related work, asked the other day.

There is no easy answer but, looking back, it is difficult to imagine Manchester City are too cut up about Rooney staying at Old Trafford after that brief dalliance, in October 2010, when he asked United for a transfer. Would City have signed Sergio Agüero if, nine months earlier, they had lured Rooney to the east side of Manchester? Or – hypothetical, perhaps – might Agüero have appeared on United’s radar if they needed someone to fill the void left by Rooney?

All that really can be said is Rooney would rather play in midfield these days and Mourinho might eventually have to rethink the situation. “His days as a centre-forward are over,” Jamie Carragher observed recently. “Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are better options with United; [Harry] Kane and Daniel Sturridge are better options for England.”

Except Mourinho has already made it clear he does not want Rooney trying to be the next Ray Wilkins. Something might have to give and, until then, there will be more of the questions that used to prick Ferguson’s temper, even if it is grey performances, rather than occasional red mist, that is the issue these days.

In the considerable list of Joey Barton’s previous, it strikes me that his banishment from Rangers after a row with his team‑mate Andy Halliday is not perhaps at the higher end of the scale.

In the old days Barton might have tried to finish the argument with his fists so, if nothing else, at least we didn’t go down that route again.

All the same, Barton’s judgment is questionable, to say the least, if he really thinks it was a good idea to issue a statement declaring he wanted to “apologise unreservedly” as well as accepting that “some of the things I said were inappropriate” then follow it up almost straight away with a separate message making it clear that, on second thoughts, he might not actually be sorry in the old‑fashioned sense.

“Apologising doesn’t always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right,” Barton helpfully pointed out. “It means you value your relationship more than your ego.”

Likewise, was it really going to smooth things over for Barton, keen apparently to get back to work, to break off from what was intended to be a cooling-off period to offer his version of events on TalkSport and publicly question the way the manager, Mark Warburton, had handled it?

Barton described his expulsion as “strange” and, the morning after apologising unreservedly, said on the radio that there was nothing for him to apologise for, after all. “Maybe I could communicate better,” Barton said. That bit is certainly true.

The Guardian