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Mark Kelleher

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What Now, Wayne?

Posted: 29/08/2012 16:21

The nauseating bone-deep gash to his thigh was not the only thing that would have had Wayne Rooney grimacing on Saturday last. The horrific wound, imprinted there by the landing-boot of Hugo Rodallega, would have created severe instant torture, but discomfort had already marked his day before the incident took place.

Confined to the bench on the back of a distinctly lethargic and uninterested display against Everton, Rooney watched on, presumably uncomfortably, as those chosen in favour of him swaggered, produced and justified their starting places. In a shot prior to kick-off, a camera trained on Rooney, track-suit top zipped to the neck, sitting wearily in the dug-out. The pitch was being looked at with a cold stare, the bewilderment of a grounded child gazing incredulously out at the lawn where their friends are kicking a ball. Next to him, Javier Hernandez, noticeably less perky than previous seasons, looked utterly resigned.

United are an intriguing proposition now. Teeming with a full army of attacking flair, the signings of Kagawa and Van Persie have lifted the burden from the stocky shoulders of Rooney. While most concede that neither arrival has plugged the widening chasms that were in most dire need of addressing, the presence of each will unquestionably add a ruthlessness scantly available since the departures of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.

Van Persie, so often impossible to contain, naturally sent all tongues wagging, but it is the arrival of the little Japanese playmaker that will potentially return United to their fluid best. So light-footed it's possible to believe he would not leave a footprint walking across a field of snow, Kagawa's presence should offer an incisive outlet through the middle - a refreshing change from United's over-reliance on wing-play.

On Saturday, each showed their respective worth. Van Persie thundered a left-foot strike into the net with his first United shot. Kagawa, a scorer later on, dictated the play and provided an ingenuity that had pulses soaring already. The benched Rooney had every reason to be contemplative.

The high regard in which many reds hold Rooney has withered out of late. Once the absolute fulcrum of United's endeavours, recent business has opened the opportunity for many to suggest his presence isn't as valuable as it once was. Now there are other options available, convincing options, Rooney's contribution has become fair game to come under intense scrutiny. Some reds still view him as treacherous, the 2010 disturbance and transfer request unforgotten, but for many the final judgement is based on what happens consistently on the field.

At Everton, Rooney was at his erratic worst. The first touch, something he often struggles with, was wildly askew. Everton's backline coped with ease, as United's spearhead appeared unacceptably blunt. Pre-season training hadn't conditioned him to an acceptable level of fitness and United on the night were unable to muster even a jab at an Everton side fuelled by a raucous crowd and desire. The Rooney of old, the ball-junkie who played with the distinct effervescence of a street-player, was eerily absent. In his place was someone who looked as complacent as an ex-player returning for a testimonial outing. As others zipped around him, he trundled and looked to be in the way.

The Rooney of now is an entirely separate figure from the one United signed in 2004. A far less enlivened beast from the one who swaggered and drove at players with a fearless relentlessness, what we have now is a more mature, but less frightening, striker. The thunderous strikes and hunter-like traversing of the pitch, propelled by a venom that appeared to be burning within, have been displaced by a more measured style. Rooney has matured, but the strengths so apparent in his early game have suffered as a result. The fire of old has long been extinguished, a trait that both had him preset to explosive and at his most unpredictable best.

There is calmness to his game now, a maturity that wasn't as evident in his early years, but it has quelled the risky side that the world's best always harbour in their armoury. It could be said that the joy, too, so often found in those who deliver the game's finest artistry, is absent from what he's doing these days. The youthful vigour that helped trajectory his career into stardom at the tender age of sixteen is less apparent now, as is the overwhelming desire that brought him to nosebleed heights. There is a scarcity to his game. Where he once drove at defenders, pushing by them with ox-like strength, he chooses now to release the ball - delegating rather than taking authority as he used to. His ability is still unquestionable, but his character - which once had him at his fearsome best - is shyer now, less willing to present itself as something unique like it used to do.

There is a litany of reasons why Rooney's style may have regressed. Often shifted to the wings in Europe in his early United years, there is an argument in place that toying with him positionally was an early and destructive harbinger of the style we have now come to witness. Or perhaps his own curbing of his temper helped out a fire that his initial brilliance was so reliant on. Maybe the shadow left over from Ronaldo's departure - a void that Rooney seemed predestined to adequately fill - was too much of a burden for one young player to take on their own.

Fingers will inevitably point towards Rooney's own misdemeanours, too - off-field acts that prompted memories of Beckham and the severity of Fergie's punishment which followed. And, of course, there is the dark shadows of October 2010, the transfer request, the flirtations with the cross-town enemy and the subsequent standing down to sign a contract that eclipsed his previous wage-packet. His issue, he then declared, was with United's progress and ability to sign players of the right standard. It wasn't about money. It was a sentiment that held merit, but his change of mind on the back of transfer promises would have been more believable if 2011's summer had brought considerable quality and if his huge wage hadn't again risen so heftily.

Whispers still suggest the possibility of his leaving. The happy smiles and reconsiderations of the past appear somewhat false even now. The stern disappointment Ferguson emitted in the now legendary press conference, lamenting Rooney's refusal to be part of the club's future, is unlikely to have faded. As history has proven, Ferguson isn't one for forgiveness. Old wounds rarely heal in his world. He will still believe the damage wrought by Rooney's request lingers. In the player himself, the exuberance shown in the wake of his contract renewal is yet to be fully expressed. The goals still go in, as proven by an admirable scoring record, but questions still ask if the heart goes in also. Even during a spell where he's clearly not at his best, Rooney is still the type of player that all the big clubs would hand over blank cheques for.

His age and what he can potentially bring would command an enormous fee, one that the Glazers - always salivating at the prospect of incoming money - would cheerily nod in approval to. Ferguson, sensing his striker's best interests are not compatible with the club's, may well approve his letting loose, too. Not only will van Persie, his latest toy, be in his mind. Lodged there too will be Danny Welbeck, the local kid who has done good and will do excellently when further honing commences. Deserved chances will need to come. Rooney, you sense, wouldn't greet the possibility with much heartache either.

Open to leaving a few short years ago, the pros of uprooting and being part of something else may outweigh the cons. Gauging United's recent signings and a shift to a style that may not always play into his hands, the possibility of him deciding that departure-time is on the horizon is looking credible. But at what cost to United?

United would be losing what has essentially been their talisman in recent years. Reliant on his goal-scoring and the selflessness of his general play, a United eleven bereft of Rooney has always triggered worry amongst their support. When he expresses himself, so does the team. Without him there has always been a ponderousness, an empty feeling that vulnerability is always likely to be exposed. Even when not at his frenetic best, he has decided games.

While his all round game has waned, his goal-getting has improved. He no longer takes up the position of everyman, carrying out the tasks set to each position, but his instinct in and around the box has improved with age. He may not be the all round maestro his early glimpses so wonderfully promised, but there are few better complete strikers around when his mind is at it.

The issue, of course, is how often he does it and if he still wants to be doing it at United. And if he is to go, United need to be sure of what they are ridding themselves of. Capturing Van Persie was a commendable feat, but he is Rooney's senior by two years and inferior when the latter is at his best. Ideally, both would form a duo that would be unequalled in world football, but probability dictates that United are more likely to go with one than both.

Kagawa, who will be integral to the United of the next few years and a sure-starter if early signs prove credible, will sit back in the role of orchestrator. The future will decide who will be on the end of his through-balls weekly. All squad members, due to injuries and resting players, will be granted chances, but the best do not like to reside in the shadows. Ultimately, Wayne Rooney's future will be decided by himself.

Sidelined now for what could be 8 weeks, Rooney will have enough time to stew over what the next chapter will entail. It is early in the season, and perhaps the scathing critiques should be set aside until after a more generous period of time, but he will know there is a barometer to be met. In the oncoming weeks, he will be forced to watch on as a United not so reliant on him anymore takes shape. Pressure on him may have eased off with the signing of quality he once lamented was not arriving, but there is the real possibility that the lesser United are reliant on him the lesser Wayne will feel loved.

Public proclamations of cheeriness in the wake of van Persie's signing may have warmed hearts, but footballers - many of them egotists - do not like when their place in the team is cast into doubt. As Eamon Dunphy wrote in his stunningly honest memoir Only a Game? - "When they sign a new player who plays in your position it is not funny." Rooney, now faced with a real challenge, will need to turn the distress of it into something productive.

For that to happen, perhaps the fire of old - that ignited ferociousness that had him painted early as a potential great - will need to return. At 26 he is still considerably young, and improvement is undoubtedly still attainable. He may not become the truly special player he once threatened to be, but there is enough there to work with to still be one of the best. It will be up to him to prove it before next summer, where the opportunity for him to leave will open up once more.

As it stands, he is giving United an excuse for parting ways with him. In the coming months, he needs to ensure getting rid of him would be nothing less than a horrible mistake. But it will all come down to one thing: what he, deep down, wants the future to hold.

 

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