From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.45 :: Nov. 11, 2010
The Wayne Rooney saga continues to tease us all, and deny us that innate need for closure. For the time being, he has chosen to remain at Manchester United. But the messy and very public row may not have come to an end just yet. Rooney's signing of a new five-year deal, making him the highest-paid player at the club, might instead represent only a truce, before next summer ushers in fresh developments.
In the interim, everyone connected with United will endure a period of confusion.
The fans, for one, have witnessed probably the most dramatic transfer-related U-turn of recent times. Days after unfurling banners reading “Who's the whore now, Wayne” and “Coleen may forgive you, but we won't,” they are now expected to belt out the White Pele chant once more, without a trace of irony in their voices.
Objectively speaking, it's hard to understand why loyalty is expected of footballers, who are among the most commodified beings in the universe. Products of a perform or perish culture, their every move is subject to microscopic scrutiny by a voyeuristic media and fickle fans.
In any case, Rooney is an Evertonian, and has none of the ties to United that bind the likes of Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to the club. And it isn't as if one-club men have the undying support of their fans. Paolo Maldini spent his entire career, 24 years in all, at AC Milan, conducting himself in public in the most blameless fashion throughout. That didn't stop a section of the club's fans from displaying banners jeering their skipper during his final game at the San Siro.
“Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion but you had no respect for those who made you rich,” read one, evoking perhaps some long-forgotten, half-meant slight. Another bore the words, “There is only one captain, (Franco) Baresi.”
Managers certainly don't hesitate to deny ageing or underperforming players a contract extension — why should players not seek moves for better pay or greater chance of winning trophies? Wouldn't Rooney rather play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria than continue feeding off an ageing Paul Scholes, the sometimes indolent Dimitar Berbatov and the talented but erratic Nani?
Against this backdrop, United's fans should look at Sir Alex Ferguson's sympathetic handling of the situation not as a waning of his power over his players but as an astute bit of management.
Thanks to the Bosman ruling, players become free agents at the end of their contract periods, and as a result, their value drops the nearer they approach that date. If clubs don't give in to players' demands, they risk losing them for next to nothing.
By signing a new five-year deal at Manchester United, thanks in some part to Ferguson's powers of persuasion, Rooney has ensured that United will recoup a meaty transfer fee were he to move on next summer. Were this to happen, it would echo, in its manner if not in value, Cristiano Ronaldo's £80million move to Real Madrid a year after penning a new contract.
Equally, if Rooney wants to remain, he will do so while earning significantly more than he did under his previous contract. Essentially, player and club have worked out a win-win situation.
In the long term, however, the future is murky for both parties. Two years ago, United had, in Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, a ‘Holy Trinity' to rival its original 60s triumvirate of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. Now, two of the three are gone and the third, Rooney, might still leave in the summer.
In their wake, United hasn't bought ready replacements, but has instead stocked its roster with the uncertain promise of youth.
All this is due to the bizarre financial situation at United, which reports massive operating profits every year, only for its owners, the Glazer family, to siphon off a massive chunk of the revenue to repay the debt they loaded onto the club during their takeover.
Will that situation change? Will Sir Alex Ferguson be in a position to make the marquee signings that will keep United in the hunt for trophies in the years to come?
Meanwhile, Rooney finds himself in the middle of his worst-ever form slump, which has seen him score a solitary goal for United, a penalty against West Ham, since March. This period also included a disastrous World Cup, in which the England striker was conspicuous for the frequency of his misplaced passes and laboured first touches.
This season too he has appeared subdued, most visibly in the diminished extent of his chasing and harrying off the ball. Pundits have begun predicting a difficult route back into the United first team once he recovers from his latest ankle injury, their memories of his title-winning contributions having faded in the warm glow of Javier Hernandez's spree of stylish finishes.
While it is foolish to believe that Rooney is in terminal decline, it's also quite possible that his best years are behind him. A significant number of players who blazed away at a precocious age have fizzled out prematurely.
Four years ago, Eric Cantona summed up this fear in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
“Rooney can be the best in the world at 25 if he knows you need to train hard, go to bed early and be careful what you eat,” said the former United talisman. “But he could also be out of the best teams, out of England, out of the best 100 players. Completely out.”
He took the example of Robbie Fowler, who won back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year awards at Liverpool, but faded away after his mid-20s. “Fowler was so good at 18, and four, five years later, at 23 or 24, finished, not even playing regularly for England, not even for the best teams. Finished.”
Rooney's fans have plenty of other precedents to ponder over — Ronaldo, Patrick Kluivert, Michael Owen — all of them superstars at 19, all of them past their peak at 28, their bodies ravaged by recurring injuries.
These three strikers had different approaches to scoring goals, but at their peak, all of them relied heavily on the explosive burst of speed over five or ten yards. Robbed of this asset by injury, they became lesser players.
Rooney's game is similarly predicated on his physical gifts — a surprising capacity for acceleration stored in his stocky frame — and his body, more specifically his foot, similarly prone to knocks. How many more twists can his ankles take, and how many fissures his metatarsal, before he has slowed down irredeemably?
Unless he changes his style of play, or manages to reverse a troublesome trend of foot injuries stretching back to his time at Everton, it's hard to see him carrying on at the highest level too far beyond the age of 30.
Can Rooney change his game, and adopt a subtler style? While he is possessed quite often by a spark of creative genius, his impetuous disposition has prevented him from harnessing it in a consistent enough manner for him to become a playmaker in the mould of Wesley Sneijder or Mesut Ozil, or even a genuine deep-lying forward in the manner of his team-mate Berbatov.
But it isn't impossible. Ryan Giggs didn't peter out when he lost his flat-out winger's pace to a succession of hamstring injuries. He instead worked on his game and became a more rounded player, capable of playing different roles — on the wing, behind a striker or even in central midfield.
Having burst on to the scene as a teenager, Giggs is still plugging away at United. Were Rooney to absorb some of the elder statesman's secrets (it will be hard, admittedly, adopting the yoga and the rest of that ascetic lifestyle), he might well keep scoring goals and winning titles, at United or elsewhere, well into his 30s.
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