Survey the homespun banners which hang around Old Trafford and, to the untrained eye, an obvious name is missing. Sir Alex Ferguson is there, of course, with the largest dedicated to “the impossible dream” of 38 trophies in 26 years. The newest, installed last month, commemorates the late Harry Gregg and his bravery during the Munich air disaster. Others to have been displayed in recent years have remembered Ryan Giggs, George Best and somebody called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Elsewhere, true legendary figures are immortalised in bronze, stone and sign posts. Sir Bobby Charlton, like Ferguson, has a stand named after him. He, Best and Denis Law make up the United Trinity statue. The figure of Sir Matt Busby looks down on the three of them, on a street which has been given his name. Nearly every figure to leave an indelible mark on the club is celebrated somehow. So where, you might ask, is United’s all-time leading goalscorer?
Wayne Rooney will always be warmly received by United fans, who he meets again as a Derby County player in the FA Cup fifth round at Pride Park tonight. The last time he encountered United’s travelling support was at Everton on New Year’s Day in 2018. He acknowledged their chants of ‘Rooney, Rooney’ with a wave and a nod that night, only for the fans to then break out into a rendition of ‘You Scouse Bastard’. The same had happened a few months earlier, after Rooney had received an ovation on his first return to Old Trafford as an opposition player.
On both occasions it was playful ribbing rather than anything pernicious, but both were also evidence that Rooney is not treated with the ardent, earnest reverence that a player with his record might expect. He is a legend by any empirical measure - goals scored, appearances made or trophies won - but lacks that more intangible sense of affection usually afforded to club greats. If another bit of banner space is freed up any time soon, you imagine Paul Scholes, Bryan Robson or perhaps even Bruno Fernandes would all be ahead of Rooney in the queue for recognition.
There is a simple reason why. Two, in fact. Rooney’s flirtations with leaving United in 2010 and 2013 - and the super-size contracts that he subsequently engineered for himself - have not been forgotten, particularly not that first dalliane. His threat to leave for the riches of Manchester City due to a perceived lack of ambition permanently sullied his chances of gaining hero status. Mere days after publicly questioning United’s “continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world”, hours after 40 supporters turned up at his Cheshire home in balaclavas, he was “convinced”, ready to “give everything” and £100,000-a-week richer.
He stood accused of effectively holding the club to ransom, and the financial rewards on offer to him at City should not be underplayed when retelling the story, but Rooney was concerned about the club’s level of ambition and articulated criticisms of the Glazer ownership that many supporters shared. He, like them, had grown used to settling for nothing but first place. Watching Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez leave to be replaced by Gabriel Obertan and a 30-year-old Michael Owen would lead any elite-level player in their prime to question their surroundings.
Ronaldo, of course, had spent much of the previous two years agitating to join Real Madrid. Yet in the early stages of Rooney’s 2013 fall-out with Ferguson, he watched from the substitutes’ bench as his former team-mate was rapturously received by a doting Old Trafford, even as Ronaldo scored the goal which saw Madrid progress to the Champions League quarter-finals at United’s expense. Both he and Ronaldo had attempted to force their way out of Old Trafford but in different ways. One left yet retained his good standing with the fans. The other stayed and damaged his reputation irrevocably.
Rooney would rarely feel the same warmth as Ronaldo did that night, even while scoring goals for United over the years that followed. His second dispute was not as explosive as the first and more protracted, but still damaged to a relationship with fans which could be described as tempered admiration at best right up until his departure. He left with relatively little fuss or fanfare considering the scale and breadth of his achievements, having played a single minute in his last United appearance, the 2017 Europa League final.
Perhaps there are still chapters of Rooney’s United story to write. Solskjaer agreed on Wednesday with the suggestion that, despite being only two months into a nascent coaching career, Rooney could return to Old Trafford as manager one day. Of course, as his old team-mate, he could not really say anything else. But Solskjaer’s predecessor once predicted similar. “He’s at home and I believe that one day he will be back home,” said a hammy Jose Mourinho, on the day of that first Rooney return to Old Trafford.
He still visits now and again too, though his legendary status did not prevent him from being searched by security staff upon arrival for Solskjaer’s first home game in charge. Rooney has, every so often, crooked his head around the dressing room door to congratulate the players on a good result. And the highlight of an anodyne interview with Derby’s official website in the build-up to tonight’s tie was a claim that he still does “love” Manchester United.
That ‘love’ was not so keenly felt back in 2010 or 2013, of course, and it is certainly not fully reciprocated. But it is also not even a full three years since his departure. Maybe with time, memories of Rooney’s indiscretions will be outweighed by the sheer magnitude of his 253 goals and the simple fact that he was more prolific than any player to wear a red shirt in the club’s storied history. But on Thursday night, he will still be United’s most awkward, unnatural legend.
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