The Secret Footballer believes Wayne Rooney’s lifestyle means he is unlikely to play into his mid 30s – and he says Manchester United were wrong to make the striker captain.
I know a guy at Manchester United. You know him, too.
He has a theory about Wayne Rooney’s chronic lack of form this season. It’s a theory that I share with him and one that is gathering momentum.
Right now, the United players will still be thinking of Rooney’s current form as an extended slump that they hope he can recover from as soon as possible.
After all, for all the problems at United – and there are problems – the club are just a solitary point off top spot in the Premier League after 14 games.
Heading into December, they are nicely positioned. Coiled. Just waiting for somebody to come to the fore and inject the all-important bite that has been missing from their performances so far. The entertainment.
I argued in my book “The Secret Footballer’s Guide To The Modern Game” that there are better players out there than Rooney who can play the No.10 role. But, as they aren’t English, they certainly aren’t as valuable to United commercially. To have the England captain in your ranks, at England’s biggest club, playing in the No.10 position is commercial gold.
To that end, and to the club’s prospects of recapturing the Premier League title, a Rooney revival is exactly what United need. He won’t play against West Ham on Saturday, but he’ll be back as soon as he’s fit so it’s crucial he finds form.
It could be an enormous catalyst in their season. Indeed, in their next chapter as a football club.
But it doesn’t look likely and, when you scrape beneath the surface, there are some worrying signs for the longevity of Rooney’s football career.
And it isn’t anything to do with tactics and positions.
Ronaldo looks like the sleekest sun seeker ever designed. Rooney looks like a tugboat.
Lifestyle and fitness are two of the prerequisites that professional footballers must nurture in order to enjoy longevity.
Last month, I interviewed former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, who said: “I had noticed [as Liverpool manager] that some heavy drinkers, in other clubs, had a lot of recurrent injuries at the age of 27 or 28.
“Some of them even had to end their career. Some of them were just a shadow of what they used to be.
“So if you like the job, if you have a passion for football and if you want to play as long as you can, you’ve got to give yourself the right weapons to do that. And your first tool is your body.”
Nobody is saying that Rooney drinks too much. But I look at Paul Scholes, who played until he was 38, and Ryan Giggs, who made it to 40, and I look at Rooney and ask myself whether I can see him making it past 35. The answer is “no”.
Yet why is that? He is at a club that has the absolute best facilities – nutritionists, a state-of-the-art gym, coaches – everything that a player needs to maximise the length of his career.
Man Utd were wrong to make Rooney captain
Rooney’s woes are not necessarily about the role that he has been given under United manager Louis van Gaal.
After all, Rooney adapted admirably when former manager Sir Alex Ferguson played him high on the left. Though at that time his attacking partners were Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, with Scholes making up an extra man in each attack, he played very well.
It’s true that United’s present team doesn’t compare to that great side, but then great players tend to step up.
Rooney’s lack of form is complicated by his captaincy. I said at the time that I didn’t believe that he was the right choice as United captain.
I took that view because Rooney is not scared to throw his toys out of the pram. He once handed in a transfer request in order to force through a new contract.
In short, he isn’t captain material because captains harmonise squads; they don’t disrupt changing-rooms. It is a rod that United have made for their own back.
At the time, it was an easy decision to make, popular even. But it was wrong.
When a manager gives the captaincy to a player, he needs to be aware of the ramifications if he should ever need to take it back.
Ferguson was the master of that particular little problem.
Fergie knew that if he shared the captaincy among Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Scholes, Giggs, Michael Carrick, Rooney and the rest of them, then his players would all feel like leaders without them realising how much easier they were to drop when he rotated the squad.
All of those players played for the common goal – for each other. It is much harder to follow a leader who doesn’t know where he’s going.
We keep talking about the fact that United are in transition, and that’s fine to a point, but they have been in transition numerous times since Rooney arrived at Old Trafford.
And the club and, critically, the top players have always maintained their hunger.
It is now Rooney’s turn to lead, where so many others have succeeded before, but he isn’t finding it easy.
When we talk about world-class players, we’re talking about the players who step up and unite the team quickly because other players can’t wait to follow them.
Those players lead by example. They don’t air their contract situation in public, they don’t leave you out to dry in a changing-room.
They don’t wait for others to take the game by the scruff of the neck and they most certainly make sure that they are in the best physical condition that they can possibly be.
In that regard, I have to concur with Roy Keane over Paul Merson. Rooney isn’t playing well and isn’t stepping up across a whole range of areas.
And that leaves us with a question or two.
Either, he isn’t a world-class player – which, by the way, I have never thought he was – or all of the above points make for a sad and brutal truth.
That is, we have already seen the best of Rooney’s career. I hope you didn’t blink.