‘He has been mag­nif­i­cent, but he won’t be idolised like Best, Law or Charl­ton’

James Ducker in­ves­ti­gates why the for­mer Eng­land striker will, it seems, never be a United leg­end

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League -

Ad­mired or adored? Re­spected or revered? Liked or loved? They are ques­tions Manch­ester United fans have grap­pled with about Wayne Rooney, and as he pre­pares to re­turn to Old Traf­ford to­mor­row for the first time since leav­ing the club in the sum­mer to re­join his boy­hood idols Ever­ton, it is a de­bate that will prob­a­bly resur­face in liv­ing rooms, cars, pub cor­ners and the ter­races.

In some re­spects, it is strange that opin­ion could be so po­larised. Rooney was a driv­ing force be­hind the most suc­cess­ful pe­riod in United’s his­tory, when they over­came a purge on their own re­sources brought about by the Glazer fam­ily’s takeover, at the same time Ro­man Abramovich’s largesse threat­ened to usher in an era of sus­tained Chelsea dom­i­nance, to claim three suc­ces­sive Pre­mier League ti­tles and the Euro­pean Cup. And by the time he de­parted af­ter 13 years, Rooney had eclipsed Sir Bobby Charl­ton as the club’s all-time top scorer, de­spite play­ing al­most 200 fewer games.

There is lit­tle doubt Rooney is greatly ad­mired by the United faith­ful and it al­most goes with­out say­ing that he will be af­forded a warm re­cep­tion. But cher­ished like Charl­ton? Wor­shipped like Ge­orge Best? Im­mor­talised like Eric Can­tona?

There were fans who scoffed this week at the idea of a statue be­ing erected in Rooney’s hon­our at Old Traf­ford while oth­ers who were open to it but iconic sta­tus re­mains a con­tentious topic. Did the threat to leave and flir­ta­tion with Manch­ester City in 2010 do last­ing dam­age to his stand­ing?

Are Rooney’s Liver­pool ori­gins some­thing Man­cu­ni­ans sub­con­sciously can­not fully get past? Did his de­cline in those fi­nal few sea­sons sour the mem­ory for some?

“What makes a uni­ver­sally loved favourite is com­pli­cated,” says Barney Chilton, ed­i­tor of the re­spected United fanzine, Red News. “I think there can be a haze in peo­ple’s mem­o­ries. [Cris­tiano] Ron­aldo, for ex­am­ple, drew crit­i­cism near the end de­spite his out­stand­ing per­for­mances, which some erase from the mem­ory.”

Rene Meu­len­steen ar­gues, quite forcibly, that adu­la­tion will come with the pas­sage of time, once Rooney has hung up his boots, and that United fans will look back with awe at the way in which he was con­sis­tently will­ing to sac­ri­fice per­sonal ac­co­lades for the sake of the team, and not least Ron­aldo. “Wayne was a high achiever but first and fore­most he was a team player – very self­less and very ver­sa­tile,” said Meu­len­steen, United’s first team coach for the fi­nal six years of Sir Alex Fer­gu­son’s reign. “I re­mem­ber the sea­son af­ter Ron­aldo left he played up front and scored a lot of goals. He was up there chal­leng­ing for the golden boot but Wayne has never re­ally chased any sole, per­sonal glory. We know what Ron­aldo did for United and we all know what he has be­come with Real Madrid but Wayne was in­te­gral to what we did.”

For all the goals and glory, does it mat­ter that Rooney never re­ally had one crown­ing, iconic mo­ment at United that truly de­fined him? The over­head kick against Manch­ester City in 2011? Yes, but still not defin­ing in the way Best and Mu­nich sur­vivor Charl­ton, say, had the 1968 Euro­pean Cup fi­nal or Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer the Nou Camp in 1999; or Eric Can­tona that goal in the FA Cup fi­nal against Liver­pool to se­cure the dou­ble in 1996 or cap­tain marvel Bryan Rob­son with Barcelona ’84; or Roy Keane drag­ging his team to vic­tory over Ju­ven­tus and into the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, de­spite know­ing he would miss the big­gest game of his life through sus­pen­sion. “Tim­ing def­i­nitely plays a part,” said Paddy Crerand, who was part of that vic­to­ri­ous 1968 Euro­pean Cup side. “I think Wayne has been a mag­nif­i­cent player for United and I think he’ll get a great re­cep­tion. But he won’t be idolised any­thing like Best, Law, Charl­ton or Can­tona. I re­mem­ber a cou­ple of days af­ter Best had been re­leased from his United con­tract 8,000 fans turn­ing up at Edge­ley Park to watch him play for Stock­port County! That’s adu­la­tion.”

Jamie Car­ragher won­ders if Eng­land was a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor for Rooney in his re­la­tion­ship with United fans, in much the same way it was for Michael Owen at Liver­pool, where he never at­tained the hero sta­tus at Liver­pool that Rob­bie Fowler en­joyed.

“When Rooney went to Man United at 18 he was al­ready Eng­land’s big­gest player on the back of Euro 2004 and ev­ery time he got in­jured, it was al­ways a case of, ‘Is he go­ing to be fit for the World Cup, is he go­ing to be fit for this tour­na­ment?’” said Car­ragher, the for­mer Liver­pool and Eng­land de­fender.

“Michael Owen only re­ally had one sea­son at Liver­pool be­fore the 1998 World Cup and it felt like he was Eng­land’s prop­erty and it used to ir­ri­tate Liver­pool fans. As soon as Rooney went to Old Traf­ford it felt like it was Eng­land’s player go­ing to United, rather than Ever­ton’s player.”

Speak­ing as a Liver­pudlian, could Car­ragher say Steven Ger­rard would have been held in the same es­teem at An­field had he hailed from Manch­ester? “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think peo­ple will feel they would dis­like him be­cause of that at all but there’s no way they can feel the same as if it’s Paul Sc­holes or Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville who come from Manch­ester.”

Crown­ing glory: Wayne Rooney with the Cham­pi­ons League Tro­phy in 2008

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