|'The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.'|
Back in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson received an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from Manchester Metropolitan University. He gave some advice to his fellow graduates. 'Failure is not a problem. How you deal with it is a problem. If you don't deal with it, you'll fail again. Adversity has always driven Manchester United on. We don't like losing. And therefore, that character we've got in the dressing room has to come to the surface in moments where we've lost a game.'
Wayne Rooney didn't just lose a game on Tuesday night. He lost his place. And the general consensus seems to be that his manager has lost faith. It's not the first time, of course. Rooney's refusal to sign a new contract in 2010, the subsequent public damning of what he perceived as United's lack of ambition and his engaging in such heavy-petting with Manchester City was followed by a remarkable turnaround within days. An apology to Ferguson, his team-mates and the supporters quickly followed, as did a new contract. In an interview with the BBC last September, a sheepish Rooney admitted it had been the biggest mistake of his career. When recounting the story, his relief that both Ferguson and David Gill accepted his apology and agreed to re-open negotiations was palpable. He was in their debt and he worked hard to make amends. Ultimately, Rooney's 2010/2011 season will be remembered not for the contract dispute but for his astounding overhead-kick winner against Manchester City.
In recent years, Rooney has attempted to carry the United team. In 2010, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 20 points. They finished second. In 2012, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 16 points. They finished second. In 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo's goals earned United 15 points. They finished first. The year before, Ronaldo's goals earned them 23 points. They finished first. The year before that, he earned them 17 points. They finished first. Even in 2011, when United should've suffered through Rooney's loss of form and his off-field behaviour, the goal-scoring of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez contributed 30 points. This season, should United claim another title, it will be Robin van Persie, not Rooney, who'll be identified as the catalyst, the inspiration. Rooney has been a critically important player for United, just not the most important. The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.
Speaking with the Harvard Business School in 2011, Ferguson described dealing with high-profile players, 'I tell them that hard work is a talent too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for, they are out.' Has Ferguson seen Rooney lose an edge? Has Rooney's desire to keep working waned? Has he looked upon the arrival of another new face as a curse rather than a challenge? His goal-scoring last term improved considerably - between March and April he racked up 12 goals in 11 games. If things had worked out differently, his strike on the final day of the season against Sunderland wouldn't have merely been a game-winner but a league-winner. And there were important goals too. Braces against Chelsea and Liverpool, a hat-trick against Arsenal, a winner in a nervy clash with Fulham, another double in the Cup win over City. His 27 league goals was his best tally yet. But, van Persie's arrival meant Rooney was pushed deeper again. Pride dented? Certainly.
But, just when United needed van Persie the most, he failed to deliver. He's scored once in his last eight games. He needs help. The question is, will Rooney have the attitude, the desire, the work ethic to step up? Or, sidetracked by the current rumour-mill and his manager's dissatisfaction, will he seek the solace of his other team? Agent Paul Stretford was identified by Ferguson as having played a major role in Rooney's 2010 mutiny, referring to him as "not the most popular man in the world – certainly at our club". Ironically though, having engineered such a lucrative deal for his client at the time, Stretford may have inadvertently cost Rooney in the long-run. Manchester City is no longer in a position to offer what they put forward two and a half years ago. Paris St-Germain has been touted as a possible destination and given their unlimited funds, heavy English-influence (Carlo Ancelotti, Paul Clement, Claude Makelele, Alex), their newly-acquired international profile and relative closeness to home, it may not represent as much of a difficult transition anymore. But, with Ancelotti doing an excellent job balancing such a delicate collection of egos, would Rooney even command a regular starting place? The cut and thrust of Premier League football, the easy camaraderie at training, the routine of it all would be difficult to leave behind. Starting somewhere new, different, strange at 28 - when a player should be reaching their peak, seems a monumental challenge. With a World Cup around the corner and a general acceptance that he's failed to deliver on the international stage since 2004, Rooney will need stability and focus. But, is that what he wants?
So, the next few months are critical for Wayne Rooney. Come the summertime, he'll have two years left on his current deal. If he's willing to follow Ferguson's advice in how best to handle adversity, he'll be rewarded. He'll continue to be an important player for the club, perhaps, finally, the most important. His manager has laid down a challenge. It's up to Rooney whether or not he wants to take it on.