The England captain has never quite lived up to expectations in his much feted career and does not belong among the pantheon of the greats of world football.
He wasn’t the White Pele, as he was nicknamed, but he was making a magnificent attempt to compensate for Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure. For eight months, he was exceptional, until he got injured. And he has never touched such heights since.
Go back to 2010 and Rooney had scored 34 goals by the end of March. Ronaldo’s then personal best of 42 was within his sights. So, too, Denis Law’s Manchester United club record of 46. More pertinently, United threatened to become the first club in the modern era to retain the Champions League and the first ever to win four successive English titles. It looked an extraordinary response to the sale of a superstar. Rooney, in wonderful form, was driving the team towards a place in the history books.
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Then, in the dying minutes at the Allianz Arena, he fell awkwardly just as Bayern Munich was scoring a last-minute quarterfinal first-leg winner. Four days later, minus Rooney, United lost a title decider and the league lead to Chelsea. Four days after that, the Liverpudlian Lazarus limped around valiantly for 55 minutes in a bid to eliminate Bayern. He wasn’t remotely fit but, had United kept 11 men on the pitch, his team may well have progressed. Instead, Rafael da Silva was sent off and United was sent crashing out.
Rooney’s efforts from August to March ensured he was voted both PFA Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year. He didn’t score after that, his campaign culminating in a dreadful World Cup. The notion of Rooney being a world-beater faded.
As he brings up a decade at Old Trafford, the 2009-10 season stands out because Rooney peaked then. He had served his apprenticeship, sacrificed himself by becoming Ronaldo’s unselfish assistant and slipped seamlessly into the spotlight when the main man left. Since then, there have been two flirtations with other clubs and two lucrative new contracts, neither of them exactly enhancing Rooney’s popularity with the United fan base.
He has the profile and the pay check of a galactico, but he has produced the performances of one all too rarely. Even in 2011-12, when he scored 35 times, his displays were mixed. Now, after a decade at Old Trafford, he is one of world football’s most decorated players, honored with the captaincy of both club and country, but it would be controversial to call him United’s best player. Indeed, he is in a four-way fight with Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and new signing Angel di Maria for that unofficial title.
He certainly wasn’t the outstanding individual in the side that finished seventh in the Premier League last year. It highlights the difference from 2009-10, the only year when he truly belonged in the planet’s top 10 players.
While Rooney is almost certain to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s United record of 249 goals and could end up second only to Ryan Giggs in the all-time appearance list, comparisons with past and present highlight his real status. Both among his peers and his predecessors, he belongs among the company of very good players, not the greats.
While Lionel Messi and Ronaldo are the dominant figures of their generation, Rooney is not even among their closest competitors. He came 15th in the voting for the Ballon d’Or in 2012. He wasn’t shortlisted – and as the shortlist contained 23 names, that is an inappropriate choice of verb – in 2013 and surely won’t be again this year. Di Maria, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Arjen Robben, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and others merit a much higher standing. So, in recent years, did the Spanish masters such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
In United’s glorious history, 11 men have a cast-iron case for greatness: Duncan Edwards in the 1950s, followed by Charlton, Law and George Best in the 1960s; then came Bryan Robson during the fallow period of the 1980s plus Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane from Sir Alex Ferguson’s first great team, Ronaldo from his last, and Giggs and Paul Scholes, who straddled eras.
That leaves Rooney in the next bracket down along with – to name but a few – players of the caliber of David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mark Hughes. There is no disgrace in that. Neither is there the sense that his potential has quite been realized or that predictions of preeminence have come true.