THERE are certain facts in football that are undisputed at any given point of time. You cannot dispute Francesco Totti’s unwavering loyalty to his beloved A.S. Roma, you cannot dispute the greatness of either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, and you cannot dispute the sheer magic of Andres Iniesta. These are almost universally accepted facts, and one can only come up with nonsensical arguments to challenge these facts. Five league titles, an FA Cup win, a Champions League medal and a Europa League title, along with being the all-time top scorer of one of the biggest clubs in the world and your national team should be enough to give you an undisputed title of being a legend, but curiously, for various reasons, that doesn’t quite apply for Wayne Rooney. The sensational hype was inevitable after the world witnessed a 16-year-old produced a stunning effort from 25 yards, crashing in off the crossbar and leaving David Seaman grasping at thin air. A brilliant Euros campaign in 2004 and an unforgettable debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce for Manchester United confirmed that England had found a generational talent. There was a swagger, an unmissable sense of arrogance and a refreshing sense of self belief every time the ball was at the feet of this 18-year-old wonderkid. Consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year awards only strengthened an already growing reputation, and most were convinced that England had their legendary no. 9 for the next decade. What followed was a trophy laden career, plenty of goals, a fair few individual honors and a plethora of iconic moments. Yet, there is a sense of uncertainty while discussing Wayne Rooney as a legend, a feeling that the world could have, or rather, should have seen more from such a prodigious individual, an unsatisfying feeling of wasted potential. Those arguments might have credibility, but it is undeniable that Rooney is a legend, and should be lauded for an amazing career.
Often, unrealistic expectations stop us from appreciating a player for what he really is, as has happened with Rooney. Not that the expectations were unexpected, especially when you ask Ruud van Nistelrooy to step aside to strike a sublime free kick and notch a 37-minute hattrick on your debut, on the back of a sparkling Euros display for your nation. Rooney never embraced the celebrity status like David Beckham did, not just embrace it but enhance his own image with it. Always industrious with a strong work ethic, Rooney was more suited to a reserved environment. Having a mentor like Sir Alex Ferguson helped, and we saw, albeit for a brief period, the best of Rooney. 2007-11 was the peak period for Rooney. Stunning volleys, breathtaking counterattacks and clinical finishes were all a part of his game, among other spectacular attributes. Ever ready to take a step back to allow another player to take the spotlight, Rooney was the archetypal world class forward every team needed. While United were already dominant domestically, Rooney played a pivotal role in helping his team to three European finals in four seasons, and doing so almost single handedly in 2010-11. This spell also saw Rooney score 34 goals in a single season in 2009-10, the most since Nistelrooy scored the same amount. But where Nistelrooy was a menace in the penalty box, Rooney had a lot more to his game. Not many strikers possess the range of passing or the vision that Rooney does, while also scoring as many as he did.
For all the glory in his United career, Rooney was never far away from controversy. There was an aggressive side to his game which cost his team at times, most notably in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal when he was sent off. Constant bickering with officials over decisions only enhanced people’s doubts over his temper and Rooney was regularly scapegoated for England’s misfortunes in international tournaments. At club level, constant flirtations with other big teams in the division didn’t help his cause with fans, particularly in 2010 when Sir Alex revealed that Rooney wanted out, and to Manchester City, before deciding to stay at Old Trafford. A similar saga ensued in Moyes’s first season when it took a massive contract offer to keep Rooney from leaving the club. Aggression and red cards are acceptable to a point, but fans are critical about players using their club to enhance their own financial situation. Which is why, even now, fans are largely divided over Rooney’s status at the club. Rooney, however, always managed to hit back at critics in spectacular style. Most people would call Rooney’s overhead kick against City the greatest goal of his career (it was voted as the Premier League’s greatest goal) and the timing of that goal was probably the most typical of the English forward. Having scored just one goal in 18 previous games, Rooney headed into this title-deciding clash in indifferent form, against a team he publicly wanted to join the previous summer. After a rather ineffectual 78 minutes, Nani sent a hopeful cross into the box which was behind Rooney and 99 times out of 100 would’ve been cleared away. But it was meant to be, with remarkable agility and a sweet connection, Rooney sent Old Trafford into rapturous ecstacy. The saga was forgotten, the 18 game run was forgotten, the otherwise ineffective game he was having was forgotten, and all that mattered was that Rooney came up with the most remarkable goal a Manchester derby had arguably ever seen. Rooney further dismissed criticism with a battling display in the Champions League final, despite the loss.
A big game performance or an iconic goal was always something you’d expect from Rooney. Right from the sensational volley against Newcastle United, to his brace vs AC Milan, the overhead vs City to his hat-trick in the 8-2 win, there are sufficient instances to justify Rooney’s claim to be a legend. It was befitting of Rooney’s legend that his record breaking goal came in the manner in which it did. Down 0-1 at Stoke, Mourinho sent Rooney out to get something from the game. In the final minute of stoppage time, United were awarded a free kick at an awkward angle and Rooney stood over it. Most expected a cross to come in but Rooney managed to conjure up another piece of magic to curl it into the top corner and rescue United, dare I say, yet again. No wild celebrations ensued, Rooney pointed to his teammates to pick the ball up and rush to the centre circle to look for a highly unlikely winner. While the winner didn’t come, Rooney showed that in spite of his visible downfall, he could still find inspiration in himself. Inspiration after many years of exhaustion, both physically and mentally, at the end of a career that started at the tender age of 16 and slowed down rather prematurely. He still left on a high, winning the Europa League and winning every trophy possible at club level. Now, having retired for England playing at his boyhood club once again, Rooney has every right to look back at his career with pride and although there is an air of uncertainty around his exact stature at the club and a sense of unfulfilled potential, Rooney will go down as a bonafide Manchester United legend.