Wayne Rooney's England retirement proves that he just needs to be loved again
If you're a gambling man, get out when you're ahead, they say.
Instead of going all-in, attempting to compete with a prodigiously talented bunch of young 'uns and risking being viewed as obsolete, Wayne Rooney chose to do exactly that by folding on his hand when he was still being coveted as a footballer.
With the World Cup 2018 inching closer, however, and Rooney viewed as the elder statesman who can offer a bit of experience and know-how to help England finally break their barren international spell, the timing of his retirement was a bit puzzling.
Why call it a day when the upcoming domestic season promises to be much more fruitful than the last? Why shy away from shouldering, essentially, the same responsibilities with the national team that he seems to be revelling under at Everton?
Clearly — two goals in two appearances and a glowing appraisal from Ronald Koeman aside — Wayne Rooney still has it as a footballer.
Admittedly, his first touch may leave a little to be desired these days and the acceleration is not quite as explosive as what it once was. But after enduring a torrid 2016/17 season by his own standards, Rooney seems to be on the path to rediscovering the kind of form that ensured he was the first name on the England team sheet for the best part of the last decade.
Why, then, make a footballing decision to focus on his club career and spurn the opportunity to don the national colours again?
Maybe it was never a footballing decision to begin with.
No, it wasn't.
It was the decision of Wayne Rooney, the man.
Jose Mourinho, who never shied away from publicly expressing how highly he rated Rooney when he was managing elsewhere, arrived at Carrington to find a diminished version of the player that he had once so desired.
However, there was no public criticism the like of which Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw endured, inviting scrutiny about their future at the club. Nor was there any indication of acrimony behind the closed doors of the dressing room.
Jose Mourinho didn't knock Rooney at all...but he didn't play him either.
Tellingly, both Martial and Shaw continued under the stewardship of the Portuguese manager, while it was Rooney who sought the once-familiar pastures of his boyhood club at the end of the season.
For a man who had registered 253 goals for Manchester United, cementing his name in the club's illustrious history books, Rooney left the club he had served so astutely without too much fuss.
There was no air of regret that surrounded his departure, no tearful goodbyes that lined his exit. Instead, there was an outward sense of respect for his achievement that really served to mask the silent relief that many felt at a considerable chunk of the wage budget freeing up.
Once adored and celebrated by the fans, mentioned in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo by pundits, referred to as the greatest English talent in 30 years by the manager that signed him...Wayne Rooney departed Manchester United to the painful sting of apathy.
All he was prepared to say about the whole situation in his unveiling as an Everton player, was that he left because he was someone who needed to play on a weekly basis.
But what he was really trying to say was that he just didn't feel the love at Manchester United anymore.
The chants of 'Rooneh, Rooneh, Rooneh' still serenaded him from the terraces of Old Trafford occasionally, but no longer were they rousing reactions to an audacious flick or a crunching tackle. Instead, they were feeble reminders of what once was, borne out of the hope that he would turn back the clock rather than the expectation of what was to come.
Rooney didn't just have a bad 2016/17 season at Manchester United. He had an anonymous one.
Even under the turgid tutelage of Louis van Gaal, United's toothlessness was often blamed on Wayne Rooney's inability to yank them into swashbuckling football. Under Mourinho, however, he was just sat on the sidelines while Zlatan Ibrahimovic usurped his position as motivator-in-chief, and he wasn't even deployed when the team suffered in front of goal.
For a player who was so used to being the centre piece of the club's success over the years, both positionally and otherwise, it must have been an incredibly bitter pill to swallow that his name was being pencilled in under the 'substitutes' column week after week.
But whatever Mourinho's clipboard may have read, the writing was already on the wall: it was time to go.
Many people feel that Rooney's departure from Manchester United was a mutually beneficial move for both parties. And sure enough, powered by the gangly midfield dynamo that is Paul Pogba and complemented by a supporting cast that is as effervescent as it is efficient, Manchester United seems to have moved on from the days of the stocky forward rather quickly.
But while the club journeys on to reclaim its days of glory, Rooney seems to have undertaken a completely different expedition of his own. Admitting sheepishly that he's always worn Everton shorts in the confines of his living room, Rooney returned to the place where he grew up feeling the unbridled joy of playing football as a child.
A place that gave him the first taste of what it meant to play with his heart...a forgotten feeling that he yearned to experience once again.
No wonder then, when he shielded Mame Biram Diouf from a bouncing ball deep in his own half, sparking off a move that eventually culminated with him adroitly heading the ball past Jack Butland in the Stoke goal, Rooney skidded over to the touchline on both his knees, head thrown back in delight and soa in the adulation of an ecstatic home support once again, even as his new Everton teammates congregated around him.
After being neglected and overlooked for the most part at Manchester United last season, it seemed that Wayne Rooney had found a place where he belonged again.
So when Gareth Southgate and England came calling, delighted that their number 10 had seemingly refound his mojo and eager to welcome him back into the national fold, it mustn't have been all that difficult for Rooney to turn them down.
For he hadn't just refound his mojo. He'd found precisely what he'd set out to when he left Manchester United to rejoin Everton.
He'd found love.