Indeed, this column would argue Rooney has never turned in a happier performance for Manchester United than he did against Reading – landmark goal ‘n all.
Now equal with Sir Bobby Charlton on 249 goals, Rooney is apparently one effort away from accepting a bank-busting move to China. Break the record. Write his name in the club’s history books. And he’s off.
But on Saturday’s evidence, Rooney doesn’t look like someone plotting an escape. At 31, leading United’s attack, he looked content. Happy. Comfortable in his role and with those around him. He turned in a bright shift. Was always smiling, cracking jokes with teammates and opposition. This wasn’t the Rooney that we were sold, the one that needed to be angry – nasty – to have an effect on a game. This was a performance of maturity. Controlled. Aggressive. But also in good, jovial spirit.
The smile broke across Rooney’s face in the opening exchanges when he couldn’t quite reach a Juan Mata cross. He even managed to crack wise with Michael Carrick after the Geordie made a meal of a rare shot on goal. The same occurred in the second-half as Rooney, perhaps with a hint self-deprecation, laughed when his old legs just couldn’t make a driven cross in front of the Stretford End.
What were we witnessing? A Rooney trying to enjoy the final days of his United career? Or a player, a leader, who is happy in his role under the manager? Certainly, Jose Mourinho has made it no secret that he appreciates the selfless leadership his captain has offered.
Where David Moyes was met by obstacles, leaks and outright protests as he attempted to transition the team he’d inherited, Rooney has been anything but a hindrance for Mourinho. It was only months ago that World War Three was predicted as Mourinho (again apparently) agonised over benching his captain. Indeed, many ‘in the know’ claimed the manager wouldn’t have the bottle to do it. Yet, the decision was made. The evolution was smooth. And this all achieved with Henrikh Mkhitaryan still fighting to win over Mourinho on the Carrington training pitch.
In other words, since that first call was made by Mourinho, Rooney’s status has diminished even further. And with United meeting Antoine Griezmann’s father last week, the United captain’s days as a first-choice are over. But does that also have to mean his time with United must to come to an end?
Rooney loves being United captain. And the players love him for it. You could see it on Saturday. It wasn’t just Rooney who played with a smile on his face. They were all at it. Carrick, Mata, Marcos Rojo. There was a joy to their football and how the players interacted with eachother. They’re thriving. And Rooney is driving it.
He hasn’t felt this happy in his career for over four years. Before Sir Alex Ferguson chose to call it a day, it was going to be Rooney who’d be the first of the two to leave. Under Moyes and Louis van Gaal, he clearly carried a heavy burden as both men struggled in Fergie’s shadow. But now? The shackles are off. The expectations are less. The responsibility is now shared. And unlike under Sir Alex in those final 18 months, Mourinho has made sure Rooney still feels part of the group. Needed. A required player. The Special One’s man-management at its best.
The debate has raged. Where can Rooney best see out his days? As a striker. A No10? A deep-lying midfielder? Well, what about simply as Manchester United captain?
Rooney saw it up close with Ryan Giggs. The Welshman was no first choice in his final years. But he was valued. Respected. And could still make the difference in the biggest of games. Before Giggs, Sir Alex convinced Bryan Robson to stick around. Where it is China today, back during Robbo’s years it was the continent, particularly France, which were throwing the mad money around. Bernard Tapie and his Olympique Marseille came calling for Captain Marvel and it looked like a deal was to be done. But Sir Alex talked Robson around. And when he, with Steve Bruce, lifted that Premier League crown at the age of 36, no-one begrudged him. He was still the biggest influence at the club.
So why not the same for Rooney? What can China or MLS offer that a revival under Mourinho can’t? The headline writers can’t even describe any Chinese contract offer as a ‘life changer’. Rooney is already the richest player we’ve seen in Premier League history.
So why not, as he did on Saturday, simply play out his days as Manchester United captain? Still influential. Still needed. Without the burden of having to carry everyone – and everything – on his back.
There’s still much for Rooney to achieve – and he’d enjoy it best by remaining a United player. If he scores tonight vs Hull City then the record is his – quite an achievement.