Rooney's days as a top striker are over

Wayne Rooney gave another poor performance in Sunday's Manchester derby
Wayne Rooney gave another poor performance in Sunday's Manchester derby

PERHAPS it may read like the most cheap, forlorn search for a punchline to his portly past to portray Wayne Rooney as Louis Van Gaal’s elephant in the room.

Yet even if the Manchester United captain were to grow tusks, change his name by deed-poll to Nelly, and hose Van Gaal with spray from his trunk, there could hardly be a metaphorical idiom more appropriate to his diminished self.

Or to depict the sustained attempts to gloss over Rooney’s precipitous fall from paradise, the desperate lunges to which the ex-players’ union will resort to ignore a truth that is now as self-evident as his resurrected hairline.

Van Gaal presents himself as a fearless brigadier, yet with his field-marshal he appears meek, enslaved by ancient reputation.

If the manager was serious about making a bold declaration, if he genuinely wished to seize momentum from Manchester City, he would evict the player who decorated this fixture with a moment of authentic genius in 2011.

Some 56 months on it would be the Dutchman delivering the unforgettable bicycle kick, one that would propel the waning, shrunken giant of yesteryear to the very margins of United’s season.

There is a reluctance, a fundamental delusion, a dishonesty in the refusal to declare Wayne’s enfeeblement as anything other than some momentary blip, like the temporary loss of pictures from a live television broadcast.

In fact, the days of high definition are over, the rights to the glory days are lost:  Infrequent, underwhelming flickers side, Rooney is now a blank screen.

The truth – that he has exhausted all but the remnants of his stardust, become an obstacle to progress under Van Gaal, that the reel is run – is avoided, even when the verbal detour carries the narrator into the territory of farce.

This clumsy hike up the Matterhorn of absurdity is one Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves rather foolishly undertook this week as Rooney’s downgrade continued apace in Moscow.

Their consensus was their former team-mate - £250,000-per-week, captain of club and country – was “undervalued”, that he remained the “most important” player at Old Trafford, the leader around whom United must rebuild.

Comical Ali, were he still spinning fantastic fairy tales of Saddam’s great glories, would have immediately recognised fellow shameless weavers of the outrageous and seconded the trio to the Iraqi propaganda ministry.

By the end, the BT Sport’s Champions League comedy club had stretched the borders of credibility to those distant, one-eyed territories where they could legitimately have nominated Steve Coppell for this year’s Ballon d’Or.

Rooney, his powers eroded by the onslaught of the years down to a powdery nothing, has become an evident hindrance to progress.

He has not scored in the Champions League proper for two years.

Last week’s goal at Everton was his first in the Premier League away from home for 11 months.

There are box-sets shorter than his Sahara-like dry spells which have reduced his 2015/16 vital statistics to a pitiful league goal every six hours.

His pace has gone: Stripped of the old certainties, a player who was for so long a triumph of touch and technique has become clumsy, helpless.

Rooney – who turned 30 yesterday but seems so much more antique - has been reduced to a lavishly rewarded bystander.

That his career returns are otherworldly – he is on the shirttails of Bobby Charlton’s all time United scoring record – is as indisputable as it is insignificant.

Those figures were compiled by a player who no longer exists:  Lester Piggott is the greatest of all flat jockeys, the emperor of Epsom, but that doesn’t mean Coolmore would prefer this titan of the past to Ryan Moore next June.

Time is the river that flows forever on without pity or sentiment.

Rooney may continue to scalp non-entities like Bruges, he will likely overhaul Charlton by feasting on minnows; on the bigger days, perhaps even today, there may yet be one or two last powerful stings of the dying wasp.

But Manchester United cannot, will not, be restored as a major force with this shadow of a lost past as their lead striker.

In 2010 and 2012, at the peak of his powers, Rooney harvested an impressive seasonal return of 26 and 27 league goals. In the three years since the field has turned fallow, respective returns falling to 12, 17 and 12.

These are not remotely world class numbers.

A mitigating argument about his midfield or wing deployment can be made, yet Messi and Ronaldo – equivalent leaders on teams with which United wish to compete – deliver an abundance no matter their nominal position.

The frequently lampooned Olivier Giroud outscored Rooney last season.

Against United’s apparent peers, the gap became ever more stark. The Englishman’s return was less than half of Sergio Aguero.  Diego Costa’s goals per game return was twice as good.

And the graph, like a doomed aircraft, is only moving in one downward spiral.

The very opposite to the thesis presented by BT’s United old boys club appears true:  Rooney is overvalued. 

Rewarded as a superstar, feted as a giant of the game, while performing like a beaten docket, a player futilely grasping for old glories.

United plainly need a new figurehead. They may hand the baton to Anthony Martial. They will continue to drill for superstars, hoping that they might eventually strike Neymar, Bale, Lewandoski, Muller or the return of Cristiano.

If they are again to dine at the top table, to again look across Manchester without a sense of inferiority, this is the only choice.

The Rooney issue is mammoth, elephantine, yet Ferdinand, Scholes and Hargreaves choose to see no evil, hear no evil. 

Their tactic – before, during and after another Rooney masterclass in accelerating decline on Wednesday - was to ignore or deflect; to hide behind a narrative that is built on bluster, on ancient numbers.

To contradict one of nature’s laws: The one that says that elephants run terrified from mice; this time it was BT’s timid rodents charging away from the   mammoth creature standing broken in front of them.