OPINION | By Manchester correspondent Alex Stevens
A few months before he will blow out 30 candles on his birthday cake, Wayne Rooney can be satisfied that his place as a Manchester United legend is secure.
He is closing in on becoming the club’s all-time goalscorer with 229 strikes in 472 games, well within range of Bobby Charlton’s record of 249.
Captain of club and country, he is seemingly as integral a part of United’s present and future as he is of its past.
Rooney is the first name on the team sheet of Louis van Gaal and also has more than four years to run on a contract, that including bonuses, is worth up to £300,000-a-week. The manager even admits the No10 has special “privileges”.
Yet Rooney is not universally loved by the United fanbase, like, say, Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or John Terry at Chelsea.
The bitter taste of his infamous pair of transfer requests – in 2010 and 2013 – lingers, while doubt also surrounds his performances.
Rooney will prepare for his 12th year as a United player in August but there is growing evidence to suggest it is in the club’s interests that he does not reach that landmark.
The 29-year-old has had a mixed season. Switched between midfield and attack, he has not especially convinced in either role.
Anonymous as the lone spearhead in an otherwise terrific team display against Liverpool last Sunday, he has also often looked a square peg in a round hole in central midfield. His ball retention is average and his first touch often overly heavy.
Nevertheless, the statistics are not too shabby. Rooney’s 30 appearances for United this season have yielded 13 goals, a commendable return given that roughly half of his games have come in deeper roles.
Despite missing a penalty against Liverpool last weekend, he still produces in marquee matches. He scored against the Merseysiders in December, has home and away goals against Arsenal, and slammed in the third against Tottenham two weekends ago before showing an admirable sense of humour by poking fun at himself with his ‘knockout’ celebration.
Yet Rooney has unmistakeably declined from his peak, which Paul Scholes noted last year “could have been….when he was 26”.
When he was deployed in the centre-forward role in 2009-10, he scored 34 goals. In 2011-12, he went one better and finished with 35. In the subsequent two seasons, his club goal returns were 16 and 19.
Numbers aside, it is rare to see Rooney as the hulking destructor of the past. While his desire and commitment on the pitch 11 years into his United career remains undimmed, he rarely dominates in the big games. There are flashes of inspiration, and occasional glory moments, but not consistent match-winning brilliance.
Five years ago, Rooney was being talked of in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, he is barely labouring in their shadows.
A serial trophy winner at Britain’s biggest club, Rooney has unfulfilled ambitions. He has an eye on Charlton’s United and England records. “It’s something I’d love to do,” he has said. “Hopefully, one day I’ll hold the two records. I’m confident that I can”.
Rooney has also spoken of how Alan Shearer, with his legs and his career entering its autumn phase, still managed 150 goals after his 29th birthday.
Impressive as Rooney’s achievements are, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that his best days are long behind him.
He may have been more effective than Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao this season, but that is a back-handed compliment. With United clearly in need of a more dynamic forward, as well as the type of mobile midfield enforcer that Rooney will never be, is it now time for club and player to part?
United have not been afraid of offloading big personalities in the past. When the light of the talent dims, they move in to shut the curtains.
Throw in a reasonable fee – perhaps £20m max – for the club and a fresh challenge for the player, and an amicable departure could appeal to both parties.
Rooney’s exit would not stir the emotions of 2013, and certainly not when he first tried to leave in 2010. The time is right for United to deliver the knockout blow.