Things are never simple at Manchester United. Just as the media-led obsession with all aspects of the club – fuelled primarily by the arrival of Louis van Gaal and the lavish summer splurge which saw them spend more than £150 million – looked like dying down, a Wayne Rooney red card against West Ham United over the weekend has once again reduced the world of Premier League football to a state of furious delirium, and the rabidly puritanical response to his indiscretion has thrust the Red Devils back under the spotlight. How the regulars of Old Trafford must pine for simpler, happier times when the focus was on their team’s prowess and excellence in victory, and nothing more.
The collective sense of outrage at Rooney’s petulant swipe at the galloping Stewart Downing’s midriff has led many to question the suitability of Rooney to the role of captain for both club and country. Though such unsporting behaviour could be forgiven as an isolated incident, the Manchester United forward has previous, his dismissals for sarcastically clapping the referee in a Champions League tie against Villarreal in 2005 and for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in the World Cup a year later in particular leaving two indelible stains on the reputation of a talented yet volatile footballer.
Judging by Rooney’s chequered disciplinary record, it is easy to see why many see him as being unfit to lead. And the truth is, the man who first burst onto the scene 12 years ago as a precocious freckle-faced 16-year-old from Croxteth, and who since this early age has carried the hopes of a nation, is not suitable to be the captain of a team. While a good skipper is expected to be calm, level-headed and a source of reassurance when things aren’t going to plan, Rooney’s explosive temperament and tendency to become easily frustrated in difficult situations make him the polar opposite. However, it is these qualities that Rooney possesses – and not the ones that he lacks as an effective captain – that are important, and have made him the exceptional player that he is.
Wayne Rooney has emerged as England’s finest player for a generation precisely because of his hot-headed, volcanic nature. His unrelenting desire to win at all costs and his fierce hatred of defeat have defined his whole career, and as a consequence he is on course to overtake both Sir Bobby Charlton and Alan Shearer as the all-time top scorer of his club and of the Premier League. Calmness and stoicism are all anathema to Rooney; rather, it is his ferocity and primal passion that drives him on, with the celebration to every goal – the trademark Rooney roar – a manifestation of his constant urge to win.
Rooney may have asked to be named as captain as his most recent contract negotiations were underway, and as one of Manchester United’s most senior players, he may feel that it is a position that he has earned. However, he must remember that being a captain is not a necessary stipulation to being regarded as a footballing great. Indeed, donning the captain’s armband carries far less significance in football than it does in other team sports such as rugby; though having a leader in a team is clearly important in terms of morale and togetherness, the title of captain is a largely ceremonial one and has very few added responsibilities on the pitch.
Revoking the captaincy for both club and country will be unthinkable for Rooney, and the suggestion would be likely countered by the fact that his last red card came over five years ago, an indication of his growing maturity. However, recognising that the duties of the captain would perhaps be better served by someone else – which is by no means an admission of weakness – would enable the England international to once again thrive on his feral, ultra-competitive nature which has made him one of England’s greatest and most decorated players, without worrying about it damaging his credentials as the leader of the team.
Wayne Rooney has never been captain material. He – along with every England and Manchester United fan – should be eternally thankful for it.
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