Wayne Rooney didn’t have a bad game during Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Southampton on Wednesday night. He provided some of the brighter moments in a game that meant little; flicking the ball goalbound toward Henrikh Mkhitaryan after 11 minutes, then beautifully cushioning a high ball before setting up Anthony Martial, who shot wide, two minutes later.
Rooney broke with Mkhitaryan after 63 minutes, then built another attack with Juan Mata after 65. Three minutes after that, his number was shown for him to be substituted, at which he protested, asking: “Who, me?” As it was, Mata was taken off instead.
Just as they did at Tottenham, United fans sang Rooney’s name at St Mary’s. They’ve not turned on him at games, but he shouldn’t outstay his welcome and Sunday’s game against Crystal Palace is likely to be his final start in a United shirt.
He’ll be lauded again but it won’t be an obvious farewell any more than it will be for David De Gea, another player likely to depart in the close season. Few players get to say goodbye when it suits them, but May is the month when the cords are cut and transfers negotiated.
Wednesday marked 20 years to the day since Eric Cantona announced his retirement at the age of 30. United’s French hero wanted to walk out at the top, he didn’t want endure a decline and, besides, wasn’t there more to life than playing football?
Rooney’s hinterland isn’t quite so rich, though. He’s a working class, street footballer from Liverpool, who became the best English player of his generation. Dressing him up as something else doesn’t convince and there’s no sign that he, at 31, will do similar to Cantona.
It has been sad to watch Rooney this season. He started 2016-17 as captain of United and England, one whose place seemed certain in the starting XI of both teams. He finishes it out of the national team set-up and effectively a fringe player for his club, having only featured more prominently in recent league games because the focus has shifted to the Europa League.
Imagine if that was you? You’ve been a star for all your adult life and then, quite suddenly, not only are you not anymore, but there is no shortage of people to tell you that you’re finished. You planned to stay at the top level and had a contract until 2019, but then cannot even make the best starting XI when the leading striker is out injured?
While Rooney’s loss of status has been stark this season, his decline has been gradual for several years. He was United’s best outfield player in 2013-14 under David Moyes but endured spasmodic form under Louis van Gaal.
This season began with Rooney making many a fan’s first-choice XI alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, but it quickly became clear that his place was at risk after he made little impact in early games. When Rooney was dropped for the Sept. 24 game vs. Leicester, the decision was welcomed by a majority. United went on to win 4-1 and the attack looked liberated in a tremendous first-half display.
There haven’t been too many fantastic moments in the league this season but Rooney’s last-minute free kick at Stoke in February, when he became United’s all-time leading scorer, was one of them. It cemented his status among many fans as a club legend and that will endure, as more focus on the great player he was, as opposed to what they see now.
Rooney said last week that he wants to stay at United, but the decision is no longer his to make. Besides, to say anything else would damage his stock among those who don’t think he comes close to justifying his massive salary.
He’s had a great run and, in addition to a large collection of medals and individual awards — including five Premier League titles — his 253 goals in 557 games put him first and sixth respectively in those categories among United’s all-time records. Rooney can be immensely proud of everything he has achieved in 13 years at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho has handled the situation well, speaking positively about a man who could have become a problem. Publicly, Rooney has put a brave face on things. What else could he do? He’s probably as frustrated as any fan that his body won’t do what his mind tells it.
You can tell that the criticism stings. So when he manages the odd stellar performance, like the hat trick he scored at Bruges last season, he uses it as a “told you so” to his critics, because he believes that he still has what it takes; that he is right and they are wrong.
It’s sad for Rooney that, while he is not finished as a footballer and has not been as bad as some critics have suggested, he doesn’t look good enough to play for United at 31 in an age where top players playing into their mid-30s is the norm. (In mitigation, he’s played over 700 career games since his debut as a 16 year old.)
It’s better to remember some of his greatest moments, like the incredible goal in the 2011 European Cup final against Barcelona, the pre-eminent team in the world at the time. That Wembley goal came months after arguably his greatest strike, a bicycle kick that won the Manchester derby. Rooney was so good at his best that United fans sang “You Scouse b——‘ at him and he was in on the joke and laughed.
We used artwork of Rooney’s famous goal vs. Man City on the front cover of this month’s United We Stand fanzine because we think it’s his last month as a United player. Not that it’s quite over yet. He has featured in six Europa League games this season — scoring twice and assisting three goals — and he may yet rise from the bench vs. Ajax to make a glorious final contribution. It would be fitting.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.