Wayne Rooney was angry when he stopped in the players’ tunnel and delivered a brief but powerful message to journalists shortly after the end of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal on Saturday.
His anger was rooted in a sense of betrayal — betrayal by the media, by some within the Football Association who have been quick to condemn the England captain following headlines surrounding his alleged drinking at the team’s Grove hotel base, and by those who were quick to cash in on photographs of him socialising with guests at a wedding party.
Underneath it all, the United and England forward may also have been angry with himself for putting himself in the position of having his face plastered all over the newspapers in the first place.
But whatever the primary factor for Rooney’s ire, he was angry, nonetheless, and that emotion might prove to be his salvation as a top-class footballer and enable him to show that, as he insisted on Saturday, he is “not finished yet.”
At 31, Rooney is undoubtedly facing a pivotal moment in his career, and time is not on his side. He goes into Thursday’s Europa League clash against Feyenoord at Old Trafford needing just two goals to equal Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time scoring record of 249 at United. So history beckons for the former Everton youngster, but that milestone is the only shining light in a currently bleak landscape.
On the flip side, Rooney has scored just once in the Premier League this season, his England captaincy is in jeopardy, he has lost his regular starting spot for United — dropped against Arsenal at the weekend due to Jose Mourinho’s concerns over his lack of pace — and he appears to be battling the self-doubt that has led to him, and everybody else, wondering whether he is now a midfielder or a forward.
That quandary appears to be the nub of the matter for Rooney, however, and the sooner he accepts he is still a forward the better, because putting the ball into the back of the net is the only way he can regain the confidence and swagger that have been in cold storage for months.
It is too soon to begin writing Rooney’s football obituary, but he is actually contributing to the haste with which many are sharpening their pencils to do so.
The fire seems to have gone out, and the evidence has been out on the field, with Rooney far too content to play a deeper role for club and country — a role which, undeniably, keeps him away from the sharp end and makes it easier for him to avoid the piercing scrutiny that comes with being a striker in the middle of a dry patch.
When he declined the opportunity to take not just one, but two, penalties during the Europa League encounter with Fenerbahce on Oct. 20, it was a worrying sign of Rooney’s evaporating confidence and reluctance to put himself in the firing line in the event of him missing. That episode betrayed a man who was too content to allow others to take charge and too willing to step away from the spotlight.
But that is not Rooney’s character; he has never shied away from the pressure that comes with the job, which is why his postmatch anger at the weekend might be a sign of him regaining his bravado.
Rooney has always been more dangerous on the pitch when he has had a cross to bear. Sir Alex Ferguson would always reject claims the young Rooney was too angry for his own good, insisting instead the devil inside was actually what elevated him to a higher level.
When he had a point to prove, Rooney often delivered, and it was the same last season under Louis van Gaal. Having been dropped by the former United manager for a game at Stoke City on Dec. 26 following a run of poor form, Rooney told the Dutchman he accepted his decision, but would prove him wrong by playing “my way” when he returned to the team.
Rooney believed van Gaal’s cautious style of play blunted both his and the team’s attacking edge — the boss even told players to not shoot with their first touch — and he had had enough of it.
When he returned to the team in early January, he scored seven goals in six weeks before injury curtailed his resurgence. That was the real Rooney, but we have not seen him since. He returned from injury late in the season, struggled for form and then found himself playing in a midfield role at United. It was a position he continued to play for England at Euro 2016, with limited success, but for some reason Rooney now believes that to be his best position. Mourinho knows it isn’t, and he has insisted so publicly. Rooney now needs to believe it.
He needs a run of games at centre-forward; he needs to sharpen his fitness; and he needs to score again. Once he does, he may just abandon ideas of playing in midfield.
No centre-forward is as prolific in his 30s as he is in his 20s, but Rooney has not lost the goal scorer’s instinct that has placed him within touching distance of United’s all-time tally.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney’s one-time teammate at Old Trafford, has slowed down in front of goal since turning 30. Comparing the two players is like comparing chalk and cheese, with so many factors such as physique, lifestyle and culture rendering it a flawed exercise.
But with anger once again flowing through his veins, Rooney can still be United’s man for the big occasion. But he needs to believe in himself and allow his devil to fire him up again.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_