Rooney's Decline Is Being Enhanced By Van Gaal And Hodgson's Blindness


How long can a nation endlessly debate the world-beating genius who never quite came to be? It's time to reshape the Rooney conversation - to focus on the experienced 30-year-old who's in front of us now and not the man boy who knocked us over all those years ago.

Rooney is not the messiah, nor should United or England fans expect to him to be ever again. His lights have dimmed sooner than we might have expected, but let us remember how brightly they shone and how many games and goals that freakishly strong body and unfailingly committed mind have given us already.

Rooney has nearly 600 games on the clock. Eric Cantona managed just 440 in his career and retired at the age Rooney is now. Was it bravery from Cantona to leave the ring as the master? Or is it braver of Rooney to continue as a player who would be given the runaround by his younger self?

Either way, we need to get to grips with a new Rooney reality. The line-breaking speed is not coming back; the game-shifting moments are fewer and farther between. A degree of that we can put down to confidence; the bulk of it is a fading of physical powers in a game played at a quite preposterous pace these days

If you're not freakishly quick you've no business being a No. 9 in the modern game. It's not Rooney's fault that United and England keep playing him there. The fault lies with Louis van Gaal and Roy Hodgson for being reticent to trust another in the role. Both are obsessed with the notion of Rooney as line-leading talisman, when the truth is they need to move on.

There was a telling moment during Sky Sports' analysis recently when Jamie Carragher wondered aloud why Jamie Vardy was being wasted on the left for England, when his best position is clearly through the middle. Gary Neville was sat opposite and replied in the flash that the reason was Rooney and Harry Kane. With that the poison dart of Carragher's loaded question had been delivered.

Kane is back firing of course, but the Rooney-must-start-at-No. 9 England blueprint is not one many of us will be excited about heading to the Euros next summer. Yes, he's scored buckets of goals in the shirt. But no, you wouldn't back him to do so in that role against really good teams at a major tournament these days.

The same is true at United, where the underwhelming start by Memphis Depay this season has added pressure on Rooney to deliver goals from an area he can no longer thrive in. Anthony Martial is the obvious successor for the No. 9 role, but until now Van Gaal has made it clear Rooney is the man in possession.

Perhaps Van Gaal is too conscious of upsetting his "star player". Perhaps he needs to reevaluate who that star player is. The bottom line is that Rooney needs to be played in the three behind or not at all, with either Memphis, Martial or James Wilson deployed to use their pace where it's needed most.

He's not Roy of the Rovers anymore, so let's stop thinking of Rooney as a playground striker and start wondering where best his considerable technical talents could be used for United and England. The obvious place is No. 10, but for Rooney to thrive there he needs to be doing the job consistently for both club and country. 

Now is the time for that opportunity to be presented on both fronts. Now is the time for Rooney reinvention and full acceptance that his days of 20-goal seasons may well be behind him. 

Moreover, now is the time for new leaders to emerge for United and England - players to take their teams forward and at least share the expectancy and intense focus that meets Rooney's every appearance these days. 

Rooney is not finished yet. He's not the Messiah, but he's still a bloody good player.

Decline was a lot easier to bear in the era of Sir Bobby Charlton. Popular opinion was shaped by chipper reporters and upbeat Pathe news clips back then, not the tactical take downs of former pros operating sophisticated smart screens, or frantic number-crunchers rushing to Twitter.

Charlton never finished a game to be told he'd failed to complete a key pass, or muster a shot on goal. He never saw a reading of his pass accuracy at 55% or had his performance shamed by the fact he'd lost possession six times during a game. Tackles were harder, but Charlton's decline came softer.

Those were the stats that Rooney, the Charlton of today, faced on Sunday, after failing to ignite the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. In the build-up we read of Rooney's big-game record, of his 11 derby goals and that famous overhead kick, but the 90 minutes that followed played into the same narrative we've been reading for months.

Rooney couldn't influence the game. It wasn't for lack of trying.

There are times when Rooney must wish the era of Charlton was his - a more forgiving, less knowing time when great players were left to keep playing and his every yard run and ball passed wasn't recorded by an analyst somewhere.