Wayne Rooney a symbol of United’s fall from summit

So, it is a hail and hearty ‘welcome home’ to Steven Gerrard who returns next week to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to don a bib and get a sneak peek at life under Jurgen Klopp & Co. 
Wayne Rooney a symbol of United’s fall from summit

You know what, it’s like he’s never been away. Which, of course, he wasn’t. Not mentally, in any case. Landon Donovan intimated as much recently.

It was Donovan who suggested earlier this month that both Gerrard and Frank Lampard had misjudged the MLS after the pair checked out after far from inspiring first seasons with the LA Galaxy and New York City franchises respectively.

Lampard, of course, took an age to move Stateside in the first place while Gerrard seemed to spend a fair chunk of time yearning for Blighty.

Both Gerrard and Klopp have dismissed talk of the player pulling on that famous red jersey again, but such is the nature of the media circus surrounding the game in England, and the insatiable appetite for stories concerning the game’s few genuine English stars, that this one will run and run until Stevie G is back in California. Or not.

It’s a lot of hot air to expend over a player whose abilities waned so perceptibly toward the end of his time at Anfield, though the manner in which Gerrard’s powers diminished was far less surprising and alarming than that of his fellow Liverpudlian Wayne Rooney who, at just 30 years of age, looks a shadow of the player he once could have been.

Not was, mind, but could have been.

Richard Kurt wrote in these pages last Monday about how Manchester United’s somewhat improved display against Watford at Vicarage Road last weekend and Rooney’s absence were hardly isolated happenstances given his propensity to slow the game down and lose possession. In itself, that is a remarkable statement: this is the United and England captain, ladies and gentlemen.

Kurt is far from the only observer to have looked on incredulously down the years as one of the highest paid footballers in the world has sought to trap a ball and make the attempt look like a five-yard pass to space, or wondered how a professional of his stature could look so ponderous. Roy Keane is among those to have thought very much the same.

Keane, as is his wont, had a right good cut off his former teammate on ITV the other night. He questioned the wisdom of a recent appearance on a wrestling programme where Rooney theatrically slapped one of the muscle-bound actors for the benefit of his son Kai, but it was Rooney’s performance in United’s 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven that drew an even greater rebuke.

“He doesn’t look sharp, he looks awful,” said Keane who could hardly be accused of going off on one, given he praised the player’s legacy at Old Trafford and his goal-scoring record, in particular. “Mentally he doesn’t look really sharp; physically he doesn’t look in great shape. He needs to have a look at himself.”

Keane and Rooney were two of those players whom their former manager Alex Ferguson deemed to have been short of true world-class status — Gerrard, of course, wasn’t a “top, top player” either — and while the opprobrium over the Cork man’s absence from that list was considerable there was much less over Rooney’s.

Think about that.

This is a player who exploded onto the scene as a 16-year-old when his goal for Everton condemned Arsenal to a first league defeat in 31 games, a mere boy whom Arsene Wenger described at the time as the single biggest English talent he had witnessed since arriving in London from Japan six years before.

It is someone who scored a memorable hat-trick for United on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahce and who has gone on to score more than 200 goals for club and country in the years since and yet the congealing impression of his career is of one that has failed utterly to add up to everything it could have been.

You compare him to Roy Keane, a man who has admitted that his devotion to lowering his body fat index was so extreme that it actually harmed his playing career, and you begin to get the picture.

And yet it was Rooney who publicly questioned United’s ambition back in 2010 when he was engaged in bitter contract discussions with Ferguson.

He earned the wrath of the faithful for that, but he was bang on. United’s stardust was already beginning to disperse by then, their deluded claim to be ‘the biggest club in the world’ having long been backed up by their performance in boardrooms and ledgers rather than on the field where they habitually sat a yard or two behind Europe’s truly big front runners.

How ironic then that Rooney himself has long been symbolic of that shortfall. The fight to keep hold of him five years ago was painted in most quarters as one that had to be won as it would serve as a very public statement of the club’s oft-stated ambition and size, and yet United’s slavish desperation to maintain hold of Rooney merely undermined that very desire. It was an admittance that the emperor was, if not naked, then only half-dressed.

United’s braggadocio is painful, their rhetoric empty and that is regardless of whether or not they make the knockout stages of Europe or claim the league title because any club that regards Wayne Rooney as the apex of its pyramid imposes on itself its own glass ceiling. Both player and club need to take a good look at themselves and their ambitions.

Email: brendan.obien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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