Man U's Man-Child
The rise and fall of Wayne Rooney.
Rooney eventually did re-sign with United, for a substantial raise. But he was still accused of childishness, with one elderly club legend declaring that he had "the mentality of a 15-year-old." Critics alleged that he was under the thumb of his agent, the entertainingly shady Paul Stretford. Alex Ferguson, who referred to Rooney as "the boy" throughout the negotiations, boasted to the press that he set Rooney straight by warning him, "I don't want any nonsense from you." All of this finger-wagging and head-patting, it should be noted, came despite the fact that Rooney's rationale for wanting to leave United—that the club's financial problems could harm its future competitiveness—was perfectly legitimate. Perhaps United's future obstacles are so obvious that even a child can see them.
Rooney has yet to take the pitch since the contract wrangling, and how he'll be welcomed is as big a question as when he'll get his form back. (This weekend, fans in Kent are planning to burn him in effigy.) The questions are closely related. Supporters are a forgiving group when a player is in good form. They love Rooney as a misbehaving prodigy. It's when the goals dry up that they—and the tabloids—turn on his supposed immaturity.
And there, of course, lies the irony. It's not immaturity that's made Rooney's game deteriorate, it's a string of injuries sustained while doing his job, along with a brash instinct increasingly subordinated to various positional responsibilities. (This year, United has again moved him out of his lone striker role and lined him up behind Dimitar Berbatov.) By the same token, no one ever threatened to kill Rooney for being rebellious. Local yobs didn't start slotting him into their assassination fantasies till he took a businesslike view of his career. Rooney's real problem with the fans, in other words, may be the same one that's seen him struggle on the pitch. It's not that he's still a child, but that he's suddenly too grown-up.