In the summer of 2013, as Sir Alex Ferguson made his Old Trafford exit, almost lost in the maelstrom was the news that Wayne Rooney had once again asked to leave the club. The circus surrounding a twentieth league title and Ferguson’s retirement was enough to overshadow the culmination of a feud between the two. A feud that had seen Rooney lose the trust of his manager and drop out of the side. Considering his present form, it is tempting to think that Ferguson may have been trying to do United, and David Moyes, a favour.
Having identified that his best years were behind him, perhaps Ferguson attempted to offer his anointed successor a chance to clear the decks and build a new team. A team with a new focus. It was an opportunity missed. What followed instead was a lucrative new contract for Rooney, authorised by Moyes, which could yet prove to be one of his most damaging mistakes. Chief among Jose Mourinho’s current problems is the sharp and continuing decline of Wayne Rooney.
His dire lack of form may have escaped the attention of TV pundits but social media was much less forgiving in their assessment of the United captain. There is no doubt that Rooney has enjoyed a stellar career with Manchester United. He will likely usurp Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record and although his recent performances have been way below par, he deserves recognition for over a decade at the top. Yet the reduction in his abilities has become so pronounced in the past two years that it is becoming deflating for fans to see him in the starting line-up each week.
As well as baffling to hear many “experts” still talking about his talents as a goal scorer. Perhaps there is something in his performances that escapes the attention of the casual fan. After all, his virtues were sold emphatically by Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Roy Hodgson. All experienced football men with a catalogue of trophies to their name. It is possible their experience in the game offers them insight into his value that spectators can’t see for themselves. Yet, each one of these managers have themselves second-guessed how best to use him these days.
When unable to influence a game from a forward position, each manager has cited his “maturity” and “experience” to recommend he drop back into midfield. In Van Gaal’s case, it came to the point where he dropped him entirely (albeit for one match). Cynical as it may seem, perhaps his current contract offers an insight into Rooney’s real value to Manchester United. Rooney’s most recent deal ties his commercial and sponsorship earnings to Manchester United. Putting the club in the unique position of being able to negotiate, and gain a cut, from any commercial deal that their star player makes.
Rooney’s image has become synonymous with the Premier League brand and he remains the most marketable player Manchester United have on their books. His name has remained in the top ten list of shirt sales for over a decade and at the time of his improved contract, Rooney ranked as the fifth most marketable footballer in the world. Beaten only by Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Fernando Torres. Players who currently ply their trade in La Liga and, except for Torres, are enjoying the peak years of their career at the top of European football.
A shrewd deal then, for Ed Woodward and the Glazer family. The sharp increase in Rooney’s commercial commitments over the past two seasons could hint at the significance of this. Good business it may be, but it only remains a lucrative arrangement for both parties for as long as Rooney is in the team and playing every week. But could this raise some troubling questions about how much of an effect this arrangement has on team selection? Is it unrealistic to suspect that Rooney’s new deal may have included a clause that keeps him in the starting line-up when fit?
A little far-fetched maybe. Yet fans, increasingly frustrated with his performances and his untouchable status, are struggling to justify his inclusion for any other reason. This also would go some way towards explaining United’s erratic transfer policy of the past two seasons. So eager are they to land another player who can match Rooney’s commercial power, who would become an asset to both the club and the Premier League, they are led up the garden path by agents and clubs alike. Their attempts to sign Neymar, Ronaldo and Gareth Bale have all, so far, failed.
It is no coincidence that each of these targets, aside from being world-class footballers, either have the potential to eclipse the commercial power of the Rooney brand or already have. Their failure to secure signings of this calibre have left the club in a position where they feel they can’t afford to lose their most valuable commercial asset. No matter how ineffective he has become. Until a replacement presents itself from within, or until Gareth Bale or Neymar can be coaxed from Spain, United seem minded to persist with the ailing forward.
With Rooney unlikely to want to leave England and unable to attract another top club in this country with the finances needed to pay him, it feels like the club could be in the midst of a stalemate. Maybe the inertia at Manchester United since Ferguson’s retirement has as much to do with the man currently wearing the captain’s armband. The success that has eluded the club since 2013 irrevocably tied to the fate of England’s waning star.
Ferguson’s attempt to move him out of the club was perhaps his last attempt at ensuring the bright future of the club he managed for 26 years. Until United can bring themselves to end the profitable but increasingly loveless relationship, or his lack of form has become so evident that it jeopardises his vast commercial value, the two seem stuck with each other.