The Elephant in the Room Scaring off the Guests, and HostAugust 23, 2016
Our UK Bureau Chief Sylvanus Wekesa went to Old Trafford on a mission to gather thoughts and opinions from Manchester United fans about Oh Captain My Captain Wayne Rooney. Need I say more?
A lot has been published on Wayne Rooney’s unstoppable free fall to make dwelling on it a waste of time. However, it’s worth getting the view from the stands as fans continue offering their unsolicited opinions on their once beloved player now turned eye sore.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s last address to the Manchester United faithful included a sensational claim that Wayne Rooney had asked for a transfer. It is important to note that under Ferguson’s late years in his managerial career, Rooney became the enfant terrible by asking difficult questions that no one dared to ask. He questioned the master about the club’s dwindling ambitions as Manchester City usurped United as the new powerhouse in Manchester. It is alleged, Ferguson never forgave him for questioning his judgement at that time, which would partly explain their strained relationship in the later years. The signing of Robin van Persie signalled the end of an era for Wayne Rooney as had previously imagined, with RVP becoming the automatic choice to lead United’s attacking line.
Enter David Moyes who persuaded Rooney to stay with a new hefty pay package despite strong interest from Jose Mourinho at Chelsea that time. Moyes also named Rooney as team captain. The logic behind Moyes decision was that he did not want to lose influential players in his early days as manager. David Moyes was to be laid off months later and his critics accused him of being clueless, not knowing the goings on of the team. His faith in building a team around Wayne Rooney backfired as he ended up alienating Robin Van Persie who was a key cog in the machine that had just won the 20th title under Ferguson.
His successor Louis Van Gaal came in with a philosophy that created some of the most boring, turgid and slow football ever witnessed at Old Trafford. It was christened as a snooze fest every time Manchester United took to the pitch. All fingers rightly pointed at LVG for his rigid style of play, which restricted players from enjoying their freedom. Amidst these accusations Rooney received constant criticism for being the impediment of creativity and entertaining football and thus was the epitome of LVG’s troubled reign. LVG trusted him for the creative role of number 10 to the dismay of many United faithful and he constantly defended his captain from routine criticism despite average performances in every game. LVG was to be dismissed after two years and left Wayne Rooney’s position intact.
Last Friday I visited Old Trafford to watch the first Friday Night Football of the season and also Jose Mourinho’s first Premier League home match between Manchester United and Southampton. En route, I made a detour to the local pub for the pre-game ritual of grabbing a few pints while chatting with Mancunians about their feelings about the new season. While at the pub, I brought up the issue of Wayne Rooney, the captain, leader and ‘legend’ of Manchester United. The pub was full of Mancunians and local boys and girls which meant one thing – they openly dislike Wayne Rooney due to his place of origin based on an age old regional rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United. To them, the thought of a Liverpudlian captaining the great Manchester United is in itself sacrilegious. This lot curses David Moyes for that move. Despite the regionalism-fuelled hate, they rightfully acknowledge that in his good years, Wayne was a good servant and contributed to the accumulation of trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson. However, at the moment his good days are over and he should not be anywhere near the first team.
Besides this regionalism politics in the pub, there was a general consensus that Wayne Rooney is not a naturally gifted player especially when deployed in the midfield. He suffers from a chronic ailment of poor distribution of the ball and also does not have the capacity to control the flow of the game. His poor first touch also known as the ‘elephant’s touch’ is no longer an open secret and deep down Wayne knows it too. In light of this, what is it then that makes successive managers want to build a team around him yet they have more talented players who could give a better performance? Did Sir Alex Ferguson leave a virus in the name of Wayne Rooney at United that keeps on replicating itself to every manager’s blue print? At the moment, Manchester United are overflowing with midfield talent and Jose Mourinho simply does not know how to use all of them. Despite this reality, Jose Mourinho has decided to follow his predecessors by sticking with his captain, if the first few games are anything to go by. Even if this means playing fan favourite Juan Mata in a wide position to accommodate him, or keeping Bundesliga’s best player last season Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench.
During the Southampton game, one could sense the high level of anxiety in the crowd every time Wayne Rooney touched the ball. You could hear a loud sigh of relief when he quickly released the ball. Every time he misplaced a pass which he did a couple of times, the crowd was livid and frustrated going by their unison grumbling. Southampton was a poor opponent that failed to capitalise on the mistakes of United. Rooney has been casual with his passes and it has become symptomatic of late for him to get away with rather silly mistakes. The anti-Rooney camp believes that he does not justify the hefty amount of salary he draws from United every week by providing average performances week in week out. Furthermore, previous reports that Wayne Rooney handed in two transfer requests is part of their claim that he is not fit enough to be a United legend and thus should sod off back to Everton.
To the pro-Rooney camp, his best years benefited United and he has continued to show his willingness to play for the shirt despite Sir Alex Ferguson throwing him under the bus during his farewell speech to the fans. He is subsequently chasing to break the goal scoring record of Sir Bobby Charlton that will perhaps cement his position as a United legend in future. To this group, if he continues scoring goals, then he will continue receiving their support. The pro-Rooney, camp, however agrees that his best years are way over but they do not have a clear way forward of dealing with his current erratic form.
Back at the pub for the celebration pints, the discourse continued and every man jack gave me an etched expression of ‘I told you so’ on their faces. Both the anti and pro-Rooney camps debated and came to a consensus that Wayne Rooney actually impedes Manchester United’s attack. Both camps disagree on how the Wayne Rooney question should be addressed. There was a glimpse of hope amidst the drunkenness from the anti-Rooney camp. They are inspired by the events witnessed at Etihad, where Pep Guardiola has replaced Joe Hart without even having played for him. They hope this will have a reverberating effect on Mourinho to develop some balls of steel and drop Rooney. At Chelsea he was faced with the same predicament with John Terry and he did not shy away from dropping him when necessary.
As the season progresses, Wayne Rooney will continue to split opinion among United fans. To one side he is captain, leader and legend while to other side he is just a fat scouser in United colours. Ironically in the pub, a huge poster of Rooney holding the FA Cup won in May this year hangs in the background. Clearly, the owner of the pub has chosen his camp already.
At the moment Wayne Rooney is the elephant in the room at Old Trafford and as Churchill would say, he is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. How Mourinho deals with him is a leadership challenge. The reality is that he cannot drop himself from the team and therefore the person who constantly selects him will likely be caught in the crossfire between the two Rooney camps.