I must preface this post with the following statement:
I love Manchester United. I used to love Wayne Rooney.
Now, to business. Wayne Rooney's actions before signing his new five-year deal with Manchester United have been just loathsome. He's spent the last six months agitating for a new contract, held out, slammed the club as lacking ambition, publicly contradicted his manager and now finally re-upped for a major wage increase.
To be brutally honest, although I suggested last week (link) that selling Rooney should be considered, I never honestly thought he would sign for Real Madrid or for Man City. The former option would involve him relocating abroad ("Does Señor want some chocolate for those churros? No Señor, we don't do baked beans here") and the second would involve verbal abuse for the rest of his life and, sadly, potential physical danger (see photo below). It seemed like posturing for a new contract until the doubt was magnified incredibly with SAF's Tuesday declaration that his star was adamant he was leaving. To read the "contract signed" headlines today brings what threatened to turn into a saga back into sharp relief: Wayne Rooney is a spoiled, childish athlete and we were fools to excuse his past actions.
Whenever Rooney's got himself in trouble it's been excused by both his followers and by United. Any problems have been dismissed as a bad combination of money crossed with his lack of years - a working-class kid with outstanding gifts thrust into the public limelight when not quite ready. Selfish acts have been attributed solely to capricious youth. We now know better. This furore wasn't a result of his thinking United lacked ambition or any desire to live abroad. It came down simply to money. Never more will we - or should we - look at his indiscretions and say "Oh well, that's just youth". Now we will look at them and judge them the sins of self.
Sometimes in sport, a player whose game is based on unselfishness is expected to live up to that
reputation outside the sporting arena. The most notable example is LeBron James. A truly unselfish basketballer on-court, his antics this offseason - remember "LeDecision"? - when switching from Cleveland to Miami were the epitome of a "me-first" athlete who didn't quite get it. People weren't upset so much about his team-swap but more the way he engineered it. With James, many were surprised because his sporting prowess is based on making others better.
Wayne Rooney - unlike celebrated former-teammate Cristiano Ronaldo - is obviously an unselfish footballer. He probably deserved a wage-rise. But the way he set about engineering it marked his cards permanently: by publicly slamming his club and teammates he became not an immature guy but a conceited one. His apparent apology to Ferguson and teammates is quite inconsequential. You can't say something, take it back and then continue to enjoy the full trust of your peers. Life doesn't work that way. From now on, United will see him as someone who was prepared to sell them out for an extra dollop of cash and rightly so. United will forgive, but they should never forget.
I will continue to cheer when Wayne Rooney scores. I'll also cheer when he gives off an assist, or marvel at his workrate. What I won't do though, is make excuses for him any longer. As a football-following public we've been too lenient with him. Even if his form returns to levels approaching last year all will not be forgotten, nor should it be. Fans don't necessarily have long or short memories, just convenient ones - we're happy to excuse players as long as they appear outwardly penitent and perform onfield. Wayne Rooney's recent conduct is something fans should never conveniently forget. He should now be recognised for what he is: a severely flawed footballing genius.
If he stays until the end of this contract or beyond, Rooney should be remembered as one of United's greatest players. All will be better, but it will never be completely right again. With his posturing over the last fortnight he's damaged his legacy and will now never be remembered as fondly as players like Giggs, Scholes or even as happily as someone who left like Denis Law.
I hope the extra few quid are worth it, Wayne.
(picture courtesy: guardian.co.uk)