Instead of carrying Manchester United through lean years with the odd trophy, acting as a talismanic figure like a Steven Gerrard or a John Terry amid tough times, Wayne Rooney’s decline by the age of 30 was sharp and painful. Much like his own team’s decline after the Ferguson years.
In the summer, he was shipped back to boyhood club Everton, his best years firmly in the rear-view mirror.
It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where he lost it, and it’s harder still to tell exactly what it was he lost: it wasn’t just his pace or his ability to mark games, it wasn’t a yard of pace nor was it simply that his legs gave way. On top of all that, Rooney seemed to lose something much more important than that. He lost an edge he carried with him even in the most meaningless of games.
Ever since he broke onto the scene with a stunning long-range strike past David Seaman against Arsenal at Goodison Park, Rooney had a spark that stood him out from the rest. A young Wayne Rooney was turbulent, fiery and competitive, but that only spurred him on to some sort of greatness. Fighting with referees and opponents alike, he was never the perfect number nine; he would drop deep to help his team, not necessarily through any stunning technical abilities but through determination and drive and a willingness to help.
But he was also naturally and explosively talented. He was almost obscenely talented. Perhaps one goal above all other sums up Wayne Rooney at his peak, though that peak came earlier in his career than many expected.
After winning four league titles in five years at the turn of the Millennium, Manchester United started on a downward trajectory. Falling slightly behind an Arsenal side who went an entire season unbeaten in 2003/04, Jose Mourinho’s arrival in the Premier League also seemed to change the dynamic. It wasn’t clear that Alex Ferguson, the United boss, was even still the right man to continue to lead the club, and talk of retirement wasn’t too far away.
And yet, in hindsight, did anyone really expect that the fiercest of fiery Scots would bow out on a low note because of the successes of an Invincible Wenger and a suave Portuguese newcomer who called himself ‘The Special One’? Instead, Ferguson spent the guts of £30m on a special teenage talent, Wayne Rooney.
It was a gamble in some ways. The Evertonian youngster’s talent was not in doubt, but English football had seen talented young players given too much too soon. Michael Owen was at the top of his game, but injuries were hampering him, possibly from burnout, whilst the likes of Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri had both come from the Everton academy only to shine brightly and fade. But Rooney was far too talented for that.
A stellar Euro 2004 behind him, he burst through on his United debut to score a hat-trick in the Champions League against Fenerbahce, and if anyone thought Rooney was a flash in the pan, they had to dispel the idea.
But there was an edge to Rooney, a tempestuous flair which saw him on the cusp at all times. It’s where he played his best football, but it could also get him into trouble.
As his first season progressed, though, Rooney’s United were blown away not just by Arsenal, who finished above them in the Premier League and lifted the FA Cup after beating them on penalties, but also by Mourinho’s Chelsea, who won the league and beat United in the semi-final of the League Cup on their way to lifting that trophy, too.
Indeed, coming second in their Champions League group behind French champions Lyon meant drawing AC Milan in the first knockout round of the Champions League, which would eventually be won by old enemies Liverpool. A trophyless season for United could only have been made worse by the fact that so many of those most hated clubs around them had such successful seasons and won all the silverware.
But Rooney was still the bright spot, and would go on to become the club’s all-time top goalscorer, even if nothing quite got much better for Rooney than his goal in the second half of the season at home to Newcastle.
United were 1-0 down in a game that probably didn’t have too much riding on it: Liverpool and Everton were probably too far behind to make much of a difference to United’s season, whilst Arsenal and Chelsea were too far ahead. With only four games left after the visit of the Magpies, United were focusing more on next season than this one.
And yet, Rooney still had that edge, that competitive streak and the will to win that defined his early career. Arguing with the referee over some supposed infringement the nature of which is lost permanently to the mists of time, Rooney is incensed and fired up: just enough so that when the ball breaks to him in the middle of the pitch, he’s able to unleash an animalistic volley, hit so sweetly that you can only assume the pent-up frustration at the set-to with the ref was taken out on the ball. It was hit so savagely and with such venom that, mercifully, you get the feeling the referee was lucky the ball was there to distract Rooney from what he might done instead.
Things would get better for Rooney at United. A trophyless season was followed up by one which didn’t get too much better, even though the League Cup saw the Liverpudlian collect his first winner’s medal the next February. It was later on, when United won the Champions League and appeared in two more finals and won another five Premier League titles, that Rooney finally fulfilled his promise in terms of silverware.
And yet, despite all the accolades and the awards, the trophies and the records, what would life have been like if Rooney had been able to continue his career with the same hunger and anger that he started it with. Just what would he have achieved?