The Manchester United striker signed a €360,000-a-week five-year contract in February – but is his star on the wane both at club level and for the England national team?
By Greg Stobart
As Wayne Rooney relaxes on holiday in Portugal with his family, he knows that he faces a pivotal summer. His future might well be secure but his legacy, reputation and standing is very much on the line.
The Manchester United striker will go to the World Cup in Brazil having failed to shine at a major international tournament since announcing himself as a superstar when he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old at Euro 2004.
Astonishingly, after eight World Cup matches spanning eight years, Rooney will head to Brazil still looking to break his goalscoring duck.
Once the Three Lions’ great hope, he was sent-off against Portugal in 2006 and his most memorable contribution four years later was an outburst towards television cameras on the pitch following a dire goalless draw with Algeria.
There is a sense that the 28-year-old has never quite fulfilled his blistering potential and he travels to South America knowing that, in theory at least, he is in his peak years. His record of 17 goals and 12 assists in 29 Premier League appearances this season certainly suggests he is ready for the challenge.
But Rooney will have to make sure his ego does not get in the way of his contribution to the team. The form of the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana mean he might not even be a shoo-in for Roy Hodgson’s starting line-up for England’s opener against Italy in Manaus on June 14.
Rooney has often thrived on being at the centre of attention, both on and off the pitch, but has reached a stage in his career where people may start to question whether he is worth being indulged.
The preferential treatment he received from David Moyes this season provoked some resentment from team-mates but eventually convinced Rooney to sign a five-and-a-half year contract worth £300,000-a-week in February.
Rooney is an excellent player but not in the top bracket that deserve to earn such eye-watering salaries – and now United are committed to keeping him on a deal that will expire a few months short of his 34th birthday.
Even at the time, the deal smacked of a desperate PR move from United as they looked to recover from a disastrous season. The club felt they simply couldn’t afford to lose Rooney in a political sense, especially as he was the focal point of Moyes’ team.
“With that kind of physique it was hard to imagine him playing into his 30s,” wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography while making a withering assessment of Rooney’s conditioning and professionalism.
The new Manchester United manager, Louis Van Gaal, will no doubt turn to Ferguson for some advice when he takes over at Old Trafford after the World Cup.
The Dutchman is likely to be told that it would be a bad idea to hand Rooney the captaincy that was allegedly promised to him by Moyes when signing his contract.
The signs suggest that Van Gaal has already decided to overlook Rooney for the captaincy in favour of his Netherlands skipper Robin van Persie.
“Always, you make a player captain when you have more or less the same philosophy, not only about football tactics but also about life,” Van Gaal said last week. “So I think that’s very important. I believe that Van Persie and Van Gaal [have] the same philosophy.”
Since Van Persie’s move to United in 2012, it has always felt as though there is not room for both him and Rooney to shine. Both players want to play in the same position and they both want to be the main man in attack.
There are already fears that Van Gaal will clash with Rooney, who is equally known for his hot temper and could lash out at the 62-year-old’s authoritarian management style – just as he did with Ferguson.
Rooney could even find himself out of Van Gaal’s first choice starting XI if he sticks to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, with Van Persie as the main forward and two wingers either side.
Rooney has twice threatened to leave United in the past. In 2010, he was ready to join rivals Manchester City and last summer he wanted to move to Chelsea. In both instances, his agent Paul Stretford negotiated new contracts to make his client the highest paid player in United’s history.
If Rooney does find himself sidelined and unhappy under Van Gaal, he will have few options to move on. What club is going to match his vast wages on a five-year contract, especially with his family settled in the north west?
The links with Paris Saint-German continue to be floated in some football circles and that looks like Rooney’s most likely escape route were he to leave United. The biggest hitters in European football – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich – will have little interest.
Chelsea or Arsenal could renew their interest from last summer but both clubs felt messed around by his representatives and have moved on to new targets. United would also resist selling to a Premier League rival.
Whatever happens, this feels like a summer when Rooney’s star will start to wane.