Wayne Rooney at risk of going out at Old Trafford with a whimper | Daniel Taylor

Daniel Taylor
Wayne Rooney applauds the Manchester United fans after February’s goalless draw with Hull City. How many more matches does he have in the club’s colours? Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

In the middle of the pitch, under the lights of the Bernabéu, one man could be seen going through his victory poses. Cristiano Ronaldo has choreographed these routines over the years. He kept his top on this time, maybe reserving that particular treat for the final, but you are probably familiar with the rest of the act. Ronaldo pointed at his chest. He nodded with appreciation at his own night’s work and it was the look of self‑adoration you might remember from the Fonz after a particularly impressive chat-up line to one of the girls from Happy Days.

A couple of nights later, it was midway through the second half at Old Trafford when Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo’s old colleague, started going through his warm-up on the side of the pitch. Manchester United were finding it difficult to shake off Anderlecht in their Europa League quarter-final and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had rarely looked so disorientated. Yet when the crowd called for a change it was another substitute, Ander Herrera, they serenaded rather than Rooney. A few moments later, they sang the Spaniard’s name for a second time. Rooney returned to the dugout and never had to remove his tracksuit top even when Ibrahimovic went down with the injury, ruptured knee ligaments, that footballers fear the most.

These are the occasions when it can feel like a trick of the mind that there was once a time when Rooney regularly outperformed Ronaldo during their days together in Manchester. It just feels like a long time ago when Ronaldo is picking off Bayern Munich in a Champions League quarter-final and Rooney – the younger man, lest it be forgotten – has reached that point of his career when age is his toughest opponent. Two thirtysomethings heading in very different directions: one who looks in the mirror every day (many times, undoubtedly) and imagines the next Ballon d’Or; another who has been locked in decline for longer than he would probably wish to remember, trapped in the zone between the twilight and no-light of his career.

At 31, there is no secret why Rooney is now at the fag-end of his professional life. It is the classic case of burn-out involving one of the wunderkinds of his generation – the assassin-faced baby, this correspondent called him in Euro 2004 – and it is almost a surprise he has lasted at Old Trafford so long when one of the people closest to Sir Alex Ferguson confided recently that the former manager’s “leaving present” in 2013 was to start the process of edging him out.

Ferguson’s relationship with Rooney, then 27, had deteriorated to the point they managed only a cursory handshake, with barely any eye contact, when the former manager gave his farewell speeches on the last occasion United paraded the league trophy. Yet David Moyes thought it was worth another go.

The question Moyes asked Rooney in their first conversation that summer – “Do you still think you’re a top player?” – was intended to get under his skin. Rooney replied that, yes, he did. “Then why are Chelsea offering only £25m for you?” Moyes wanted to know. Which was a reasonable question given that United were willing to pay £27.5m for Marouane Fellaini in the same transfer window.

The manager at Chelsea back then was José Mourinho and, four years on, it is fair to say he no longer holds the same opinion of the player he once implored Roman Abramovich to sign. Likewise, United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, might understand now why, in February 2014, so many people questioned his judgement in awarding Rooney – or “Wazza”, as he calls him – a five‑and‑a‑half‑year contract, taking a player who was already on the wane to within a few months of his 34th birthday.

Rooney’s desire to switch to a midfield role might have seemed reasonable enough bearing in mind Louis van Gaal’s experiment with the idea last season. To Mourinho, however, it was also an admission that, deep down, Rooney recognised he could no longer trouble opposition defences in the way of old. Van Gaal had assembled one of the least attractive United sides in memory and, though Rooney can hardly be held responsible for that, who can blame Mourinho for wanting a more energetic midfield and making it absolutely clear that he would be abandoning his predecessor’s tactics? Or, to put it another way, just try to recall the last time a striker excelled after reinventing himself as a central midfielder. The list is not extensive by any means.

Rooney has subsequently had more yellow cards than goals, seven to five, and it is tempting to wonder whether there is any embarrassment on his part that he is actually four years younger than the player who has spearheaded United’s attack so effectively this season. Yes, Ibrahimovic is an exceptional case, at the age of 35, and Ronaldo is another freakish example but it is still legitimate to question how Rooney has lived in comparison and whether he has cared for himself with the same kind of devotion. And it is difficult to make a case that he has.

Mourinho began the phasing-out process almost immediately after accepting the job and, even taking into account Ibrahimovic’s misfortune, it is still feasible that Rooney’s role will continue to be a peripheral one between now and the end of the season, featuring only the odd substitute appearance here and there.

This is, however, at least an opportunity for the former England captain – that title now being in the past tense bearing in mind some of Gareth Southgate’s recent statements – to show he is not entirely past it and a chance, perhaps, to go out on a high rather than simply being asked to collect his coat and shown to the door at the end of the season. Rooney has 10 games, maximum, to find a way back in, with the possibility that the last assignment will be the Europa League final in Stockholm on 24 May. Can he do enough to persuade Mourinho that he is still capable of influencing the most important matches, as he did in last season’s FA Cup final? Might there yet be a happy ending, if we are right to assume these are the final four weeks of his playing career in Manchester?

It won’t be straightforward when Marcus Rashford’s renascent end‑of‑season form makes him an ideal wearer of the centre-forward’s shirt – all the great United sides have been synonymous with speed – and there is already a reasonable argument, despite everything Ibrahimovic has contributed, that the Swede slows down the team’s attack with his lack of movement. Rashford has chosen a good time to reignite and even in Rooney’s peak years Ferguson had a theory that his player took a while regaining his best form after missing games through injury. Nobody should be too surprised that Mourinho decided against bringing him on when Ibrahimovic limped away with the injury that might have taken a wrecking ball to his career.

Roy Keane described that decision as being the “final nail in the coffin” and it certainly reinforced the suspicion that Rooney’s 13-year stay in Manchester is down to its last three games at Old Trafford – league fixtures against Swansea and Crystal Palace and the Europa League semi-final against Celta Vigo – unless something changes dramatically.

There is little evidence that it will and, beyond that, it does not reflect brilliantly on Rooney that most people see him decamping to China or Major League Soccer. Everton is another option and a return to the club where it all started. Yet the fact it is even on the cards is another demonstration of how Rooney has had to adjust his thinking – this time a year ago, there was absolutely no desire on his part for there ever to be a second coming.

A lot has changed since then and the best English player of his generation can probably understand now what Ilie Nastase meant, back in 1977, when the two-times Wimbledon finalist and former world No1 tennis player reached the same age. “Everyone keeps telling me I’m 31,” Nastase said, “and now I start to worry about my strokes. Now I’m thinking, two or three times, before I hit each shot. Before, I just used to play and everything came naturally.” It doesn’t get any easier, either; Nastase never played in another grand slam final. For Rooney, there are 10 games to find that happy ending.

Nothing new about fans’ raw deal

Many thanks to the Manchester City follower who has brought to my attention a letter, from April 1969, that had been sent into Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly magazine asking why the people who shape their lives around going to matches often get such a raw deal from those in charge of the sport.

“Why haven’t the FA swapped the venues of the two FA Cup semi-final matches?” writes J Thomson of Chelsea, London. “As it is, the two Midland clubs, West Brom and Leicester, have to travel to Hillsborough and the two northern clubs (Manchester City and Everton) have to go down to Villa Park.

“Surely it would be easier for all concerned if the two venues were changed round. Perhaps the FA never take the lifeblood of football – the fans – into account when they make their decisions.”

Plus ça change, you might think at a time when the FA’s executives are sticking doggedly to their line that it is better for everyone (not least their accountants) to have semi-finals at Wembley, no matter where the relevant teams are from, and we live in an age when the television broadcasters routinely rearrange games – Middlesbrough now playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on a Monday night, to cite one example – without caring a jot about the disruption it causes.

The decision-makers, it turns out, have been messing fans around for half a century, maybe even longer, and in a strange way it actually feels reassuring that it is not just the modern game where they hardly give a damn.

Low-key Kanté used to lack drive

With N’Golo Kanté expected to be named the Professional Footballers’ Association’s player of the year on Sunday, perhaps this is an appropriate time to share a little‑known story, passed on by one of his old team‑mates at Leicester City, that fits in neatly with the way the Chelsea midfielder goes about his business.

A lot is made of the fact Kanté prefers to drive a Mini rather than operating with the fleet of dream machines that other members of his profession consider essential. But it turns out that when Kanté first arrived in Leicester he was not even sure he needed any wheels. Kanté, the story goes, reckoned it was possible to run into training every day and had to be persuaded that it wasn’t usually done that way in the Premier League.

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