‘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
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