On Friday, it’ll be ten years since Wayne Rooney announced his arrival in the Premier League with a stunning strike against Arsenal, at the tender age of 16.
Last Friday the Croxteth-born boy captained England in a competitive match for the first time in his career, a fitting final paragraph to the chapter that is his first decade in the Premier League.
Rooney’s first ten years in the league have been marred by controversies – on and off the pitch – scattered with injuries and, more importantly, laden with goals – 199 in all competitions for club and country at the time of writing – and trophies – four Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League to name but a few – and have witnessed a slow yet constant development in his persona, first and foremost and, subsequently, in his game.
For the Rooney we know now, while still passionate and totally committed to the game, has nothing of the wild, raw passion and intemperance of the teenager that burst onto the scene at Goodison Park nor as much of that bullish behaviour we became so accustomed to associate with him in the early stage of his career.
This season Rooney is facing the biggest change in his game yet, as more and more often his name has been linked with a different area of the pitch from the one that has constituted his usual pasture over the last ten years.
When a fitter, leaner Wayne Rooney was deployed in midfield against Newcastle United a fortnight ago, Manchester United did what they had been unable to do for quite some time – grasping the game by the scruff of its neck from the start and dishing out a footballing lesson to one the country’s top six teams on their own turf, like the United of old used to do.
To attribute the renewed vigour in the performance to a single man would be foolish and short-sighted, but managers and players alike immediately hailed Rooney’s contribution, some going as far as staking his candidature for a permanent role in midfield for club and country – an option with which even England manager Roy Hodgson admitted to have been flirting with.
Sir Alex Ferguson knows extremely well that one game in United’s engine room is not enough to gauge how crucial Rooney might or might not be to his team’s fortunes when asked to play away from the front line, but the Scot has also repeatedly professed that “Rooney can play anywhere”, an opinion shared by many of football’s crowned heads.
United have lacked a midfielder able to unlock defences for quite some time now. Despite his return from retirement, the wonderful Paul Scholes can’t be considered a long-term solution and while Tom Cleverley has started the season very promisingly, it’d be wide of the mark to charge him with the burden of being a ready-made replacement for his older team-mate, yet Sir Alex has stubbornly refused to spend money on a quality midfielder, leading many United fans to question his decision making in the transfer business.
How odd of United to splash £24m on a striker when they desperately required a midfielder with great vision and with a sense of goal. And yet, maybe, just maybe we’re starting to see the bigger picture for Sir Alex seems determined to deploy Rooney deeper on the pitch.
Gary Neville, described his former team-mate as “a wonderful player, one that is at his best when he’s like the street kid; fighting for every ball, taking every free kick, every throw-in, tackling and heading, fighting to win.”
Those two lines contain many a reason why Wayne Rooney should (must?) be United’s driving force in midfield for years to come. His detractors point at his first touch not being quite like Scholes’, but how many players can claim to caress the ball like the Ginger Prince?
For all his flaws, Rooney is one of United most technically gifted players and one whose burning desire for the game, while mellowed with maturity, hasn’t flickered. If anything, his “street kid” attitude Gary Neville referred to would be a breath of fresh air for United, who have lacked an intimidating figure in the middle of the park since Roy Keane left the club.
“Ryan Giggs has gone from a flying left winger to someone who now plays off the front at inside left as well as central midfield.
“Paul Scholes was a goalscoring number 10 player when he first started as a 16-year-old, now he’s a holding midfield player who controls the game.
“You have to adapt. Rooney is still a centre forward, but he’ll adapt over the next 10 years to become someone who’s thought of in that same way as those two players,” said Gary Neville.
Considering that Scholes and Giggs are both approaching the home straight of their careers, by taking over their mantles in midfield Rooney would take much more than their position on the pitch, he’d also accept the responsibility that comes with being one of the senior heads in the team.
Now, that would be an interesting way to start the second decade of his career.
On this blog I’ve often lamented the lack of a midfielder (idea which I still maintain) and the mixed feelings I harbour towards Wayne Rooney since his 2010 contract debacle. Whether the idea of Fergie making him the lynchpin of our team is plausible or not, I don’t know. But perhaps we should indulge in the thought…