The day Big Sam hung Wayne Rooney out to dry

Our man inside the game says that Wayne Rooney has long been finished as a top player

The day Big Sam hung Wayne Rooney out to dry

I don’t bet. Mainly because I haven’t got the money to lose but also because I don’t know what I’m doing. The only card game I know how to play is ‘snap’ and I know nothing about ‘the going’ at Newmarket or whether one heavyweight boxer is more likely to deliver a knockout blow against another. Although, I’ll go on record as saying that where boxing is concerned, like tennis and cycling, I don’t believe anything that I see.

But there are a few bets that speak for themselves. That is to say that the result is never in doubt and can often be seen coming from a mile away.

Several years ago I was enjoying one of my regular phone calls to a man that actually has something interesting to say about this game of ours. Danny Higginbotham and I were discussing the Premier League and everything in between. Danny now works as a pundit for Sky and is incredibly knowledgeable about football as well as paying close attention to Manchester United, which is where he started his career.

We were making predictions about the game and disagreeing violently over whether football TV rights would ultimately end up in the clutches of Silicon Valley as well as where the real power lies in European football and the rumours that continually swirl around former managers that we’ve each played under. Our phone calls always end up with each of us playfully betting Monopoly money on a particular prediction. We always disagree. “I bet you a billion quid that Rooney is finished as a top player by the time he’s 30,” said Danny.

I thought about it. Just for a minute. At the time Wayne Rooney was a multiple Premier League winner, he’d also won the Champions League and seemed destined to become England’s all-time record goalscorer. He was an elite player. And elite players play for elite clubs like Manchester United. Danny wasn’t denying that Wayne Rooney would play on after his 30th birthday, probably for a decent team — Everton as it later turned out — but his days of playing for England and performing on the European stage would be behind him.

Rooney is now 32 and is an albatross to Everton. A player brought back ‘home’ for all the wrong reasons. He epitomises a signing that everybody wants to take credit for until it goes wrong. Former Toffees manager Ronald Koeman talked up Rooney’s return to Goodison Park long before it became a reality, mainly because Koeman needed a good news story to keep the baying mob from the dugout.

For the same reason, Everton’s majority owner, Farhad Moshiri, wanted to curry favour with the fans by being seen as the man that did what many on Merseyside believed could never be done. The need to stoke that ego has backfired and landed current manager Sam Allardyce with a real problem. But Sam has been in this game a long time.

Saturday’s teatime time kick-off saw Everton take on runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City at Goodison Park and as soon as I saw the teamsheet I knew Sam Allardyce was making a point.

Tactically speaking, Allardyce is not an idiot, his gruff Brummie accent and ‘Big Sam’ moniker belies a tactical nous that few English managers have shared in recent years. He has been able to turn around and extract maximum value from mid-tier teams by focusing on the fine detail of where games are won and lost and exploiting any weakness. Allardyce is no fool.

Everton countered City’s midfield three of David Silva, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne with a midfield two of Morgan Schneiderlin and Wayne Rooney. And the moment I saw that selection I immediately recognised a manager who is making a point to his owner, the crowd, the media and anybody else who fancies weighing in on Wayne Rooney’s future as a Premier League footballer. Allardyce hung Rooney out to dry and if you enjoy slowing down for car crashes then the sight of Rooney chasing the world’s best players around the pitch would have been a delight for the eyes.

City destroyed Everton by playing through Rooney as if he wasn’t there. The Champions-elect cannot have had an easier opening to a game all season. Their first goal saw Rooney stranded at his own near post, powerless to stop a Leroy Sane volley as he tried to make up for failing to track the run of David Silva who supplied an inch-perfect cross.

Less than 10 minutes later City scored again as a rampant Kevin De Bruyne eased into second gear to jog away from Rooney who was at full tilt trying to catch him. By the time Rooney caught up with play the cross had already found Gabriel Jesus who nodded past a hapless Jordan Pickford. Rooney was all over the place. A corner saw the Everton number 10 sprint across his box to try to block a long-range effort from Raheem Sterling. It was hard to watch.

Allardyce had made his point as early as the 57th minute when he put the former England captain out of his misery. The game was lost by then, but Yannick Bolasie’s consolation and the lack of a City fourth leant weight to the argument that Rooney is a liability on the pitch wherever he plays.

I believe that Wayne Rooney realises the game is up. In fact, I believe that he knew the game was up while he was still at Manchester United. Why is it that some players can continue to perform well into their 30s at the elite level and other can’t? Well, injuries are a factor of course, but in almost every other case there is a distinction between those players that look after themselves by sacrificing most of life’s vices and those players that listen to the devil on their shoulder. Rooney has never been in the greatest of shape and when the equilibrium between physique and talent narrows, the competition takes over, no matter what the age. He is certainly not a midfielder. At 32 years old he is barely a footballer.

“Are you still there Dan? First of all I’d like to think that if you had a billion quid then we’d be sat on a beach next to the Craig Bellamy isles, just off the straights of Harry Kewell while drinking Mark Viduka Slingers as the sun goes down behind Mount Carroll.”

That’s how footballers talk to each other when referring to players that have made fortunes from the game without ever really achieving anything significant. It’s mostly born of jealousy but every now and then something rings true. “Wayne Rooney finished as a top player by the time he’s 30? There’s no way I’m betting against that one Dan...”

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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