Thank You Wazza!

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Remember the name

Whenever an event occurs not just in the sports world but also in just global affairs and current news; I have a lot of thoughts and ideas which I feel like sharing with people. Seldom do I make the effort to add to my inactive blog. However, it might be just boredom because I have a lot of free time with just one summer course and the hiatus in my internship OR it might be just that it is such a significant event for me. It is an event most people will tag as unimportant in the real-life context. But as the saying goes, ‘football is the most important of unimportant things.’

I started following club football in 2002 when I was about 12 years old, after a World Cup when I saw the English disappoint me for the first of many times. On instruction from my elder brother that it would be better if I support Manchester United while he supports Arsenal, so that there would be competition in the family; I started scribbling the Red Devil in all my notebooks and even on my arms.

Around the same time, a 16-year old schoolboy was just starting his senior club career in the blues of Everton. And when I he scored a goal against a team my brother was teaching me to hate, a goal that ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run and Clive Tyldesley said those famous lines “Remember the name”; I remembered. I did not watch that goal live but I did watch it a thousand times over on the Top Goals Video in one of the FIFA games a few years later.

By Euro 2004, my interest had become a passion. Buying as many issues of Sportstar as I could with my pocket money to not just cut the photos but also to read and analyse the preview articles for weeks; I had memorized almost all the squads and all the tit bits you needed to know. However, things did not change from 2002 and the English disappointed me again. But there was a silver lining. That name became more than just the teenager who performed for a mid-table team.

Wayne Rooney was national fixation. Every English fan believed that if he was fully fit; England would have beaten Portugal and not stumbled like the Portuguese to secure their first European Championship and their first major trophy in over 40 years. But then it would have to wait for at least another 2 years. The question was until the next major international tournament; would he stay at his boyhood club or, would he take it upon himself to take up the bigger challenge and improve. He chose Manchester United. For me it seemed like it was destiny.

Once a Blue, Now a Red Devil

Our hostel was strict and watching Champions League matches late at night in hiding or with the exclusive permission of wardens was a privilege. Truthfully, I will tell you I did not watch Rooney’s debut. And a small part of me thinks it was for the better. I would probably have woken up the rest of the students and the warden if I could have watched Rooney score three superb goals that night. I did not get to watch those goals for many months. Not many of my classmates were football fans and it was a struggle to convince them to watch football when any cricket was going on. But with my constant blabbering about Manchester United and Rooney; some of them started to take notice. They started to support rival teams and make life hell for me when United lost. It partly was led to this by my tendency to support every team that played India in cricket and partly my annoying insistence that Manchester United were the greatest club in the world.

As the years rolled on, I became more and more passionate about United. From scribbling on notebooks to scribbling on my arms; MUFC, Man Utd, Red Devils, United could be found on many of my possessions. It was a pleasure to see Rooney and Ronaldo tearing defences apart. But I never really related with Ronaldo. It was the raw, angry, passionate and unselfish style of Rooney that attracted me. The anger at the referee that led to the stunning volley against Newcastle. Or the time he ran 30 yards to have a few words with the offender who got sent off for a rash tackle on a dancing Ronaldo. His cocky celebration in front of the Kop. The audacity to leave a mark on players of much bigger stature. The cheeky comment about Pires’ beard. The sarcastic clapping that led to his sending off against Villareal. It was all part and parcel of being a hardcore Rooney fan.

Rooney or Ronaldo? No, Rooney and Ronaldo

Thus, in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals when Portugal knocked out England and Rooney got sent off after Ronaldo had a few words with the referee; it was no hard decision which side I was picking. I truly believe if it was the other way around, the end result of that incident and the dynamics of the relationship between them would have been a lot different.

For me, Ronaldo was the sole reason England disappointed me this time. For me, that wound never healed. For me, Rooney took it upon himself to forgive and forget and under the guidance or orders of Ferguson moved on. God knows what would have happened if Rooney held a grudge and that remarkable young duo broke up. But it did not, and the next 3 years United won consecutive Premier League titles and the Champions League in Moscow. Therefore, even when the World Player of the Year left for Real Madrid; I was quietly happy and confident that it was now time for Rooney to take the centre stage for himself in Old Trafford and to cement his status as club legend and future captain. I felt with Ronaldo gone, maybe Nani would fulfil his potential at last or that Berbatov would suddenly become more active or Anderson would finally show us he is in fact the next Ronaldinho, and not just off the pitch. But deep down I actually felt as if Rooney was enough.

The Very Highs and the Very Lows

I was almost right. Rooney scored 34 goals that season and truly showcased he is all over the pitch. Never more evident than in the breakaway goal against Arsenal. Rooney gets the ball out of the danger area and then darts towards the Arsenal box. 9 seconds later he scored with a powerful first-time finish. He loved scoring against Arsenal. 14 in total. 14 times I celebrated while my Gooner brothers cursed or remained silent. His 26 Premier League goals almost led us to that record breaking fourth consecutive Premier League title. United lost by a point. I refused to blame the lack of resources in the squad. If you ask me it was Rooney’s injury in the 1st leg of the quarter-finals against Bayern that resulted in the Premier League loss against Chelsea and the 2nd leg loss against Bayern.

That injury was not just a problem for United as his foot never fully healed before the World Cup in South Africa. And while the English fans appreciated his efforts to get back fit, they did not applaud his team on the pitch. Fabio Capello and his rigid system was not worth the expensive trip down to the African peninsula for many of the English. The boos after the match were never directed only to Rooney; however, the camera followed Wayne and he reacted. The press got the incident they wanted. Every wonder kid in England goes through a phase of glorification, condemnation and then appreciation when he retires and it’s too late. It is sad that a majority of Rooney’s international career after Euro 2004 has been in the condemnation stage where every holiday of his has been criticized and every party he attended exaggerated. But Wayne was not someone who would stop enjoying life and doing his utmost for his family to please the masses. And after England were knocked out by the Germans; they already had a scapegoat ready.

Rooney did not. He disappointed the Stretford End and dressing room for the first time when he questioned the ambition of the team. Many think he just held the club hostage to secure a better deal. Being the fickle and hypocritical fan, though unconvinced; believed Wazza. It was true that Hernandez and Bebe weren’t good enough replacements for Tevez and Ronaldo. And with Manchester City piling up their squad a switch across town was a tempting offer not just in terms of personal finances but also in terms of team success. However, a better contract and reassurances of team objectives and ambitions;

Rooney stayed a Red

And it was against the crosstown rivals that Rooney won back the Stretford End. Not forever, but for those five minutes starting from the 78th minute when he scored for many the best Premier League goal ever. I remember watching the goal and more so that celebration. The celebration which was for me was a gesture to the fans to have their verdict on his club status and future. They embraced him back with open arms by chanting his name for the next five minutes. He bowed and was at their service yet again. Rooney was proven wrong as United secured the Premier League title with a 9-point lead.

The following season was the most successful for Rooney in terms of the number of goals. However, his goal in Sunderland proved useless, when City clinched the title on the last day of the season. But with Chicharito and Welbeck coming through the ranks; Rooney dropped deeper. The reinforcements that Ferguson brought in the summers to match the strike force of the champions across the city pushed Rooney even deeper. Rooney playing the quarter-back role while Van Persie finished off the chances. However, unlike in the NFL, the flying Dutchman’s contribution was recognized much more than that of Rooney. It was either his brave move from arch-rivals Arsenal or that he scored some vital last-minute goals; Van Persie won the hearts of the Stretford End much quicker. Even Ferguson, out of his obligation to Van Persie for luring him to United just to end his career, seemed to highlight Van Persie’s contribution.

Post-Ferguson

We shall never know the reasons for Rooney’s second contract dispute. A clash of egos? Rooney cashing in when United couldn’t afford to lose their talisman after Ferguson’s retirement? A nosey agent? Or just a misunderstanding about fitness levels. However, when Rooney lifted his last Premier League title for United; it was under a dark cloud of uncertainty. An egocentric player could quiet easily have used the event to get the attention of the owners and chairman. Rooney tried his best to stay away from centre-stage and gave little away to show any hint of a dispute. However, Rooney got an outrageous new deal and reunited with his first senior manager, David Moyes.

The next three seasons saw Rooney play every position in the midfield and attacking front. Few moments of brilliance, his Beckham-esque goal, his thumping finish in the smash and grab victory against Liverpool, his mauling run past a soon to be resolute Tottenham defence, and then his acrobatic finish in his first league match as captain under Van Gaal; to name a few. And with captaincy came responsibility. The only times you saw him foul-mouth during the match was against almost every decision that went against the team. But those once feared drives through defences were rare, impact on games diminishing, finishing more careful than instinctive and most importantly goals a lot fewer. It was noticeable that Rooney had lost that predatory finishing instinct. Rooney either preferred to take a safe shot which at least hit the target or preferred to play a safer pass and on some occasions, he missed. Van Gaal’s tactics and the number of goals that United scored that season point towards strict instructions to play safe football with the captain needing to lead the way. He never stopped scoring but he was just crawling towards the Bobby Charlton record.

When Mourinho took the reins of United, the media and fans were already talking about Rooney’s post-United future. Many of the cynical fans were convinced he would desert United even mid-season and join the money train in China. However, Mourinho being a pragmatic person who had huge amount of respect for the club legend, waited and hoped Rooney would rejuvenate his career. With Mourinho convinced Rooney was a goal scorer and with three other forwards in the line-up, the number of times number 10 was in the upper end of the team sheets was far and few. He scored goals but never really was the in-form Rooney who was could change the match singlehandedly. He contributed in other ways, making the dummy runs, being the pivot for counter-attacks and most of all getting in the ear of the referee. Thus, deep down I knew this fairy-tale was coming to an end.

End of a fairy-tale

However, it was the end of this fairy-tale that mattered a lot to me. I liked to believe that deep down Rooney was the unadulterated, passionate football fan who went on to break all records and fulfil all dreams that every kid on a football field dreams of. The player who played with his heart and played to bang those goals and punch those arms in the air in delight in front of his fans or the opponents. The public personality who did not care about the way the media will overanalyse every tweet. Therefore, if he picked to go to his boyhood club or to a less competitive league for the money was more important to me to make this an authentic fairy-tale. It would be an end of an era. The end of the first phase as a United fan. I have truly just known United as a club with Wayne in it. It slowly started to sink in that the next season when the number 10 scores there will be dabs, extended handshakes and flamboyant hairstyles. No fist-pumping, foul-mouthed celebrations from a balding icon who could easily replace the owner of your local pub. Thus, when the news came in that the Everton deal was confirmed and when the tribute videos filled my social media; I remembered.

Avash Shrestha (Twitter Handle: @avashrestha) is an avid sports enthusiast from Nepal. based in Bangkok but following whichever time zone sports demands. Football, tennis, cricket, NBA and the occasional interests in the significant NFL, F1, UFC and boxing events. But, above all he is a passionate Red Devil, who has spent more time on MUFC matches, news and analysis than on anything else.

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