Poof! He’s gone! Just like that.
As a writer, you look forward to every opportunity of putting words to your thoughts; and yet, as the brief for this article landed on my inbox, I couldn’t help but heave a sigh of despair. Not this one, not him. I call on Ludovico Einaudi’s music to help. I like Einaudi. He’s no virtuoso like Chopin or Schubert, nor is he nearly as flamboyant as Yanni or Philip Glass; yet when the strings of your heart are tugged, there aren’t many more therapeutic experiences than listening to this man work his piano.
Wayne Rooney’s career at Manchester United was one such emotional ride. Every goal scored, every tackle made, every pass placed perfectly at the feet of the overlapping winger, was an exhibition. It took you places you didn’t think football was capable of. As he brought down the curtains on an glorious 13-year stint, taking the bus to Merseyside, he would’ve known he hadn’t an ounce more to give to the club, the fans, the players or himself. On that respect, he’s probably timed his departure to perfection. In many ways, his life has somehow been all about timing, at times good, bad and at times downright unfortunate.
His slingshot to stardom was among his best timed moments. When Arsenal showed up at Goodison Park in October 2002, they were unbeaten for 30 matches. Arsene Wenger was already fanning the flames of the golden Premier League trophy, and David Moyes’ Everton weren’t supposed to dampen any spirits. With a minute to go and the scores tied at 1-1, England woke up to Wayne Rooney.
“He’s supposed to be a 16-year old.” – Arsene Wenger
Fame can be either a privilege or a handicap, depending on how heavy the weight of expectations can get. Rooney’s sparkling performances for Everton and at Euro 2004 didn’t merely make a few English eyebrows rise, it took bums off seats and spiked adrenaline levels vicariously. No surprise then, when fans nicked Paul Gascoigne’s nickname, ‘Gazza’, and christened him ‘Wazza’. Rooney had England’s blessings to burn bright until he fizzled. Manchester United, truth be told, were bound to swoop in. In early-2000s England, United were untouchable, in the respect they commanded and the success they guaranteed. Raised in the blue end of Merseyside, Wayne probably didn’t need convincing about Sir Alex’s quest of taking Liverpool “off their f*cking perch”.
Rooney has always played his football like a boxer would fight his battle, with an incandescent fire that burns within until he steps out of the ring. Every time he saw green, he knew only one emotion: rage. He was possessed, not by Lionel’s knack for artistry or Cristiano’s hunger for perfection, but by the sheer will to win. It would be hard to imagine a footballer who hated losing more than Wayne Rooney. With his physique, and that raging-bull gusto towards any half-chance to reclaim the ball, injuries were always going to say hello, many of them at inopportune moments. A broken metatarsal in the middle of Euro 2004, a tournament he was setting alight. The same injury repeated two years later right before the 2006 World Cup. A sprained ankle and crutches in the months leading up to World Cup 2010. Could he have timed his tackles better? Yes. Would he have it any other way? Probably not.
By the time he was 25, Rooney had played more top-flight minutes across more positions on the pitch than most footballers do in their lifetimes. Given the abundance of talent he could call upon, he was a potential world-beater who settled for less just to be more resourceful for his team. Football has always celebrated men who’ve gone beyond the realms of their favored position, giving their coaches more options. Wayne wasn’t just content with being a multi-dimensional footballer, he redefined the phrase. He was ready to play on any inch of grass the manager wanted him to, even if it meant allowing a team-mate shape a more illustrious career at the very position he felt natural at. His love for the game was far greater than his love for individual honor, and in a world where the players are busier creating a brand than a legacy, Wayne chose Wazza over #WR10.
His romance with Manchester United was as beautiful as it was painful. On the pitch, he exhibited the passion of a smitten lover who would go to any length to show his love. The bond was tested, and at times turned rogue, but it always came around. 13 years, 559 appearances and 253 goals later, Wayne Rooney will walk away hoping his love for this club is beyond reproach.
United have been the fortunate home to some incredible footballers across their existence as a club. When David Gill and Sir Alex signed a young 18 year-old in 2004, they would’ve hoped that he live up to all the hype. Many credit the monster we know today as Cristiano Ronaldo as one of Sir Alex’s greatest co-creations – and I’m sure the Scot would agree – but looking at sheer longevity and the complete metamorphosis of a raw and volatile talent into someone who sits at the very top in Manchester United’s charts, he’d probably be more proud of what Rooney made of his time at Manchester and under his tutelage. In a career where he routinely played the role of an enabler, Wayne still has more goals than anyone has ever had for Manchester United or England.
Players, better and worse, will continue to grace the lush green of Old Trafford, but few will scorch earth like Wazza. For thirteen years, Wayne made the Theatre of Dreams a seasonal nightmare for opponents. As he revs up his charred engine for one final push at Everton, he would know that he’s done himself, his peers, Manchester United and football proud. Wayne Rooney’s legacy at United lay as much in the overhead kick against City as it lay in tracking back 50 metres against Stoke to block Jermain Defoe’s chance of a clean shot. It was in his first-time winner against Milan, the lung-busting run and finish at Emirates just as it was in his goal-line clearance against City even with the match well outside United’s reach.
While he was here, Wayne Rooney was Manchester United.