Off He Goes

Manchester United probably should have sold Wayne Rooney in 2013.

It was during Sir Alex Ferguson’s final weeks in charge when he revealed that Rooney had asked for a transfer. Rooney denied handing in a formal request, but didn’t deny that he wanted to leave. In fact, it was the second time he had tried to leave the club (following a well-publicized spat in 2010 when Rooney questioned the club’s ambition after it let Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo leave and tried to engineer a move to nouveau riche Man City), and this time, United seemed willing to consider it. Rooney’s form has always fluctuated, but 2013 felt like the beginning of the end for the most naturally gifted English player of his era. Relegated to second-fiddle after Robin van Persie’s arrival, Rooney wanted to link up with long-time admirer Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. If Chelsea was willing to cough up a record transfer fee, then there would have been a line of United fans waiting to drive Wazza to the train station.

Then David Moyes came in and actually smoothed things over with the man he had once sued for libel. Rooney then led the team with honor and distinction over four difficult years during which time United had four different managers and never finished higher than fourth in a league it had once owned (Ferguson had never finished lower than third). Rooney didn’t use his diminished standing at the club or its string of poor results to agitate for change. Instead, he continued to lead the team with dignity and professionalism, playing hard and supporting his teammates as he began spending more time riding the pine than standing on the pitch. Perhaps his ridiculous contract extension and astronomical wages rendered any meaningful transfer talk moot. Or maybe he simply embraced, and took seriously, his role as United captain — something he claimed he had always wanted.

Wayne Rooney’s 13-year tenure at Manchester United came to an end on Sunday when he returned to his boyhood club, Everton, on a free transfer. Coming the other way was the man who could succeed him as United’s next long-term striker: Romelu Lukaku. The seemingly-Chelsea bound Lukaku shocked the footballing world by making a last-minute u-turn to join United in a £75 million deal.

Lukaku will have ridiculously large shoes to fill. Given Rooney’s long, steady decline over the last several seasons, it’s easy to forget just how great he was at United. Five Premier League titles. One Champions League. Four domestic cups. One Europa League. 253 goals (breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s longtime club record). 101 assists (one of only three Premier Leaguers to break 100). And some of the greatest goals in club and league history. From 2009 to 2012, he was one of the very best players on the planet and came close to fulfilling that “white Pelé” label that always felt more like a burden than a compliment.

Most of the time, he was a good-to-great player who thrived playing alongside other superstars. He may have never quite lived up to the astronomical (and, frankly, unfair) expectations thrust upon him after his coming out party at Euro 2004, but he definitely came close. Naturally unselfish, he did a lot of the dirty work on those brilliant 2007-2009 teams freeing up Cristiano Ronaldo to concentrate on scoring. Versatile and multi-talented, he seemed like he could take on the Scholes/Carrick role for those possession-heavy Louis van Gaal teams where defenders liked to sit back and soak up pressure, only to get exposed while playing under Mourinho. His move to Everton will probably allow him to move back to his preferred role of center forward, giving him an outside chance to break Alan Shearer’s Premier League scoring record and supplanting this as his best strike of the last few seasons.

Nevertheless, this is not a sad day for United fans – and the fact that it’s not says a lot about Rooney’s career and where he sits along the pantheon of English and United legends. He won’t be remembered as one of the most beloved United players – his attempts to leave the club probably saw to that. Plus, it was clear that he had never really fallen out of love with his hometown club and that he’d never love United as much as he loved Everton. His long, steady decline and lack of production ensured that United fans would want to ship him out instead of hold onto him until he was ready to retire. The fact that United thought nothing of buying Lukaku for three times what it paid for Rooney (who held the record for the most-expensive teenager until Luke Shaw broke it in 2014) epitomizes the modern-day transfer market. In the end, Rooney was just a gear in a machine that got used up and replaced with a new one.

That’s not to take away from Rooney’s United legacy, of course. If Lukaku accomplishes anything close to what Rooney did, then it’ll be money well spent.