Wayward Wayne Rooney set for testing Old Trafford return
On Sunday afternoon, Wayne Rooney will return to Old Trafford in the colours of the club that kick-started his career as Everton look to end their torrid run of form against Jose Mourinho's formidable Manchester United side. It would have been the first game that Rooney would have looked for when the fixtures were released, and now that it's here, it couldn't come at a worse time.
Premier League defeats to Chelsea, Spurs and a humiliating 3-0 reverse to Atalanta in the Europa League has heaped the pressure on big-spending manager Ronald Koeman, and his side could not have asked for a tougher test than the league leaders to try and put things right. Everton, despite the presence of Rooney, have also failed to score in all of their last three games.
While Rooney and Everton were being humbled 3-0 in the Europa League during the week, Manchester United and Romelu Lukaku were making light work of Basel in the Champions League. The contrast was poignant as it was Rooney and Lukaku who effectively swapped roles during the summer, and it emphasised how much one career is on the way up, as much as the other is on the way down.
Rooney returned to Everton on a free transfer as Manchester United welcomed the opportunity to untie themselves from the shackles of his weekly wage, while an investment eventually rising to a reported £90 million was made to ensure that Lukaku would be the man to replace him. Both players started the season in spectacular style, but off the field problems have once again distracted Rooney from his game, and it is only Lukaku offering value for money at the present time.
Regardless, Wayne Rooney will be afforded a hero's welcome when he steps out onto the Theatre of Dreams on Sunday, and he has every right to expect such an ovation. The all-time leading goalscorer for both Manchester United and England, Rooney should be remembered as one of the all-time greats for club and country. However, Rooney's acknowledgement will be in recognition of his collective contribution to the cause, rose-tinting over the final few forgettable seasons.
If Rooney had remained at Manchester United for the duration of his contract, there would be no heroes welcome on Sunday. In fact, he would be lucky to find himself taking to the field at all. Just eight goals in all competitions last season served only to emphasise his professional regression, and his departure from the club was a timely move for all parties concerned, as it ensured that his status would remain in a semblance of high regard.
However, he has not retired, and replacing Lukaku at Everton means he has plenty to prove to the fans at Goodison. He started the season impressively, and there was a clear motivation and new-found passion in his initial few games back at his boyhood club. It remains to be seen if he has the hunger to pull Everton out of their current slump, but as one of the most decorated players in English football, he is unlikely to have the same desire that he showed when he first came to prominence.
But the stats don't lie, and Wayne Rooney's contribution for club and country certainly commands respect. He will be remembered as one of the greatest goalscorers in the history of the English game, but while the edge to his personality had an influence on his aggressive style of play, it is the same edge that means he will always have his critics, and that he will not be as universally popular as some of the other Old Trafford greats.
Unlike most of the class of '92, Rooney was an outsider and arrived at the club already a senior player despite his tender age. A Liverpool lad, he was never likely to find himself becoming part of the Old Trafford furniture, and his career has been dogged by personal and professional controversy. Potential moves to rival clubs and misguided statements about the ambition of Manchester United did little to enhance his popularity over the years, and not even his record-breaking goal return would later convince his hardened critics.
Controversy has also followed him on international duty, from criticising England's travelling support at the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals to late night hotel drinking, Rooney has followed in the stereotypical maverick footsteps of some of England's former greats. Like Paul Gascoigne before him, the press have prayed on his vulnerabilities, and he will be remembered for the front page headlines as much as those on the back.
It is quite incredible when considering his list of achievements in the game that many believe Rooney could have, and should have, achieved a lot more. However, that would have required a different personality and character, and changing him would have also changed his game. You have to take the rough with the smooth with Rooney, and every moment of genius made every moment of hassle worthwhile.
Jose Mourinho is a self-confessed fan of the younger Wayne Rooney, and would have relished the opportunity to harness his aggression in the right way. It could have all ended in tears, but Mourinho would have appreciated the complete package, and he will be wary of the potential Rooney has to make headlines for all the right reasons on Sunday if he is full-focused on the challenge ahead.
Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement coincided with a rise in player-power, and having failed to control youngsters like Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba the way he did with Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, he would have privately realised that this new generation were not willing to abide by the beliefs of the past. Rooney tested Ferguson's patience on more than one occasion, but their respective backgrounds also brought mutual respect.
Rooney's latest front page indiscretions will not endear him to anyone, and as his ability fades on the field, you almost start to worry about his future when he finally decides to bring his playing career to a close. He does not have the character to be a manager or a coach, and his persona is unlikely to offer him the opportunity to remain in the game as a television pundit.
Rooney's connection to football is through the adrenalin rush and euphoria of scoring on the biggest stage and winning the biggest trophies. It is about the moments of magic on the field, and once they have passed, it is all about the next one. Retirement for such players brings with it a significant void that cannot be filled, and Rooney already appears destined to drift away from the sporting spotlight in the constant search of new and alternative highs.
From his incredible impact as a 16-year old, Wayne Rooney has played at the very highest level of the game, and has lived his personal life in the spotlight. He has contributed much to his profession during that time, but for the first time on Sunday, he will receive adulation in recognition only for what he has achieved in the past. It will be a poignant moment in Rooney's career.
How he performs against his former club will be a main topic of discussion, and should it prove to be a frustrating afternoon, then it will leave him asking himself questions about what is actually left for him to achieve. No longer an international player with England, and no longer playing at a title-challenging club, Rooney has realistically achieved all that he can achieve in the game, but his biggest challenge yet could be accepting that very fact.