The Trouble With Ranking Rooney

We need to talk about Rooney’s place in the Man United pantheon

This morning a tweet of mine garnered a handful of likes. Dissenting voices, somewhat outraged, were more numerous. This is what I posted:

To outright deny Rooney legend status was harsh. And tongue in cheek. Or rather, playing devil’s advocate. Because 36% of our fan base would likely support that statement going off the poll I re-tweeted. Those results and the multitude of reactions that were sparked by United in Focus even asking the question suggest there is a discussion to be had on the issue.

Even accounting for a bit of ABU involvement, it looks like a large chunk of United fans feel Wayne Rooney has not earned a place among the all-time Reds. I do not have a set opinion but would lean towards the minority.

As I see it, there are three issues to consider: who is he up against, what was his contribution, and that huge skyblue elephant in the room.

What constitutes a legend?

First things first: I, personally, hesitate to hand out labels such as “world class” liberally. A truly world class player, in my mind, is the best in his position and has shown that level of play over a number of seasons. Similarly a “legend” of the game has reached a status which can not be challenged. A club legend then has a starting place in the club’s all-time XI.

I am aware that this runs counter to common usage. But there is a distinction between a club legend who gets a statue outside the ground and the shoulder slap kind. Think John O’Shea being a United legend for having played goalie for 10 minutes that one time. This does not have to be binary. There can be levels to this. With Rooney seemingly on the way out, maybe it is time to find his.

Wayne Rooney causing distress among the Arsenal defense. (Photo by Gordon Flood, used under CC-BY)

With that out of the way, let us circle back to the original tweet. I explicitly mentioned Sir Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, and Eric Cantona. If we want to correctly, and collectively, assess Rooney’s status within the pantheon of United greats they are the measuring stick. I say collectively because I have but only my opinion to offer. Everyone has his own and it is only from the combined adulation of a fan base that legend status derives. From the adoring masses so to say. I do believe, however, there might be a kernel of truth that Rooney can not quite measure up with the aforementioned players.

Indulge me if you will. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

The Man United Pantheon

Sir Bobby Charlton, as part of the Holy Trinity alongside George Best and Denis Law, carried the team to the club’s greatest triumph: winning the European Cup 1968. Surviving the Munich air crash, aged 20, and becoming one of the pillars on which the club was rebuilt is incomparable. Charlton personified Manchester United during the Sir Matt Busby era. If we are talking commitment the discussion begins and ends with Charlton.

Ryan Giggs, in my eyes, is one of very few players who rival Charlton in the club servant stakes. Giggs is the epitome of longevity. For 24 years he was a stalwart at the world’s biggest club. Not all seasons were of the Team Of The Year variety. But Giggs started in Champions League finals at an age where many others had already called it quits. If we are talking medals the discussion begins and ends with Giggs.

Past and (somewhat recent) present outside Old Trafford. (Photo by Rebecca Swift, used under CC-BY)

Twitter limited me to three names but here I will add another two which go hand in hand: Charlton and Foulkes, Giggs and Scholes. Four players who combine for 3127 appearances, countless silverware. To me, they are the romantic ideal of what makes a Manchester United legend. For whatever that is worth in today’s game.

Then there is Eric Cantona. Sure The King receives marks against length of service rendered. But leading United to claim their first league title in 26 seasons constitutes a unique achievement in the club’s history. Under his tutelage, the Class of ’92 could find their legs. Cantona’s exploits in no small part laid the groundwork for two decades of unparalleled success. Cantona’s name is still sung with fervour twenty years after his departure. If we are talking that certain je ne sais quoi the discussion begins and ends with Cantona.

Did Rooney fulfil his potential?

There used to be Saturdays when Rooney was being heralded on the terraces as The White Pele. As he burst onto the scene he seemed a can’t miss prospect. The greatest English talent since Paul Gascoigne!

(Okay, since Michael Owen…)

At age 17, 18 Rooney was raw energy. He had pace, power, and temperament. He was allowed to make mistakes in the hope he would learn from them.

By age 24 Rooney had arguably reached his peak. A form he sustained over two or three years. 2009/10 and 2011/12 were his best seasons — the only ones where he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the squad. Before that, Ronaldo had been the main man. After his exit Rooney stepped up and produced a brilliant season. One that would likely have ended with United winning the league had Rooney himself not gotten injured. A similar late season flub, sans Rooney injury, derailed the ‘11/12 title challenge. With the arrival of Robin van Persie in the summer of 2012 Rooney was once again not the best striker in the team.

Still he put in a shift, constantly switching positions from centre forward to left wing to number 10. It is a testament to his versatility. Many a season was then marred by injuries and constant questions about his fitness level. Was he not in the last couple of seasons more of a distraction than help?

Lots of people brought up his status as record goalscorer. Let’s be frank, Rooney limped over the finish line there. Nobody can deny his talent and goalscoring prowess. But is it truly enough to put him in the uppermost echelon of United legends? What would the discussion be had he left three years ago, stuck on 216 goals?

Would anybody have been genuinely excited if in 2014 a then-28 year old Rooney had been presented as a new signing? Would he have been able to demand the same wage had he not already been entrenched within Old Trafford? I contend Rooney was kept on as one of few real marketable assets in the squad. Who else wanted to join?

And there is one more question that needs answering.

How much does the City episode tarnish his legacy?

If 2009/10 was Rooney’s best season at United, 2010/11 could be considered his darkest.

That romantic ideal I mentioned above is of course nonsense these days. But threatening to depart and join City only to sign a new five-year contract two days after felt not just like a “maybe I need to look for new challenges elsewhere” power-play. That was not the same coy song and dance Ronaldo has since perfected at Madrid. His astute way of questioning the club’s ambition also did not portray the same cleverness Lahm employed at Bayern.

This was akin to holding the club ransom over a move that would have not only caused a seismic shift in the English footballing landscape. The ensuing vitriol would have rivalled Figo exchanging the blaugrana of Barcelona for the white of Real.

July 2011: Wayne Rooney is still a Red. (Photo by Joscarfas, used under CC-BY-NC-SA)

Maybe Sir Alex belied his own credo of no player being bigger than the club in not selling Rooney. Maybe Sir Alex keeping Rooney on should be good enough for any fan to exempt Rooney of criticism over the issue. Maybe it was all a ruse and they were in on it together to loosen Glazer’s purse strings.

Maybe I should not have cheered Rooney’s overhead goal against City. Maybe I should still wear the ‘08/09 kit with Rooney on the back that is lying in some forgotten corner of my wardrobe.

These are not actually questions but I do not have any answers either way. It is an issue that needs to be taken into account when assessing his all-time status. Everyone will reach their own conclusion.

Here is a humble Twitter poll I ran a while back adding as many options as the platform allowed. Opinions were split to say the least:

So, where does Rooney rank for you?