On Sunday evening at Wembley Stadium, Zlatan Ibrahimović wrote all the headlines with another two-goal masterclass which carried Manchester United to a League Cup triumph over Southampton and the first major trophy of the Jose Mourinho era. However, Ibrahimovic was not the only player to catch the eye—or, more aptly, the ear—of his manager.
Rooney shows his value
Throughout January and February speculation raged as to whether or not Wayne Rooney would even be a Manchester United player after the Chinese Super League transfer window closed, let alone whether he would still have a place in Mourinho’s team. If the tabloids were to be believed, Rooney was on the brink of ending his illustrious career in the Republik of Mancunia. Yet, once the dust had settled, he remained Mourinho’s captain and was named on the bench at Wembley, going on to lift the trophy on Sunday evening.
Rooney never entered the field of play. He didn’t have a meaningful touch of the ball. Yet, there was no doubt that he impacted the game. His manager called him over to ask his opinion of the proceedings, wanting to know what—if anything—ought to be changed. While warming up down the sideline, he roared on his teammates. He was being readied to come onto the pitch as United’s third substitute when Ibrahimovic scored the winner.
Then, he had the best reaction of anyone in the stadium to the goal. He leapt into the air and shouted to the heavens, celebrating a goal he had played no part in. Rooney was irrelevant on the pitch, as he has been often this season. But that didn’t stop his joyous reaction to Ibrahimovic's winner. He ran towards the bench and wrapped Rui Faria in a hug. He looked like a kid on Christmas morning. There was no jealousy, no anger at being left out of proceedings. This was the club captain, his manager’s trusted lieutenant simply celebrating yet another great moment in United history. It was a stark contrast to the way that Cristiano Ronaldo sometimes does—or chooses not to—celebrate when his teammates round off a move.
Rooney still has a place at United
Rooney is no longer in Mourinho’s first choice XI. He might not even be in his best matchday squad. But that doesn’t mean he has no place in Manchester. This is a player who has won the lot at club level. He is the all-time leading scorer for his club and for his country. He has amassed more than 700 professional appearances while striking 320 times, always giving his all for his team.
Although he doesn’t have the legs he did six or seven years ago, when it was just as common to see Rooney popping up in his box to make a vital interception or help out a full back as it was to see him in the opposition penalty area giving defenders nightmares, he has one of the finest footballing brains that United and England have ever known. To top it all off, he loves United.
The two contract extension fiascos—first at the end of the Ferguson era and the other at the start of David Moyes’ ill-fated reign—and the fact that he’s a Scouser mean some United supporters will never revere him the way they do other club legends, and it’s part of why his has not been a universally popular captaincy. Yet, he loves being a Red. His teammates admire and respect him. His voice means so much in the dressing room both at Carrington and Old Trafford. His bevy of experience is invaluable, at training and on matchdays. There’s a reason why Mourinho called him over to ask what he was thinking about with 20 minutes still to play at Wembley.
There is no denying Rooney’s diminished impact on the pitch. He is no longer the player that will go out and grab the game by the scruff of its neck, dictating play and inspiring those around him. Yet, he still has a role to play for United, should he want it. If he’s alright sticking around Old Trafford through the end of next season, when his contract runs out, he can provide an invaluable contribution.
Nothing bad should be said or written about him should he choose to leave this summer, be it for China, the United States or somewhere else in England. All that he has done for United means he should be allowed to decide how to wind down his time in Manchester. If that means he chooses to see out his contract, United should appreciate the asset they will be retaining rather than lamenting the asset he once was.