Wayne Rooney has never been a man to take criticism well.
The personal and professional merge for the forward (or midfielder, or whatever) in such a way that any attempt to scrutinise either him or his performances is seen as an attack on his character, the words of a jealous media hell-bent of destroying him for their own gain.
So, in his view, the latest round of criticism, which is entirely heavier and more vicious than it has ever been, this is just more of that.
His response is typical of the man, however unbecoming it might be:
“I think I’ve had that my whole career. A little bit more of late, I think, but that’s football.
“I listen to my coaches and my team-mates, the people around me, and I don’t really listen to what a lot of people out there are saying because a lot of it is rubbish.”
The lack of self-awareness is astonishing. This isn’t (just) the media slating him, these are his club’s own fans – ordering, begging, pleading that he be dropped. This isn’t the hateful catcalls of a rabid mob who paid for blood, this is a fan base who have seen enough and are, for his own sake as well as the team’s, mercifully asking for him to be taken out of the firing line.
They boo not because they hate him, they boo because they don’t want to stop loving him.
The transfer requests soured a lot of fans on him, but some of that was salvageable in a way that his attitude towards his decline won’t be. The supporters want to remember the explosive finisher who is almost certain to become Man United’s all-time highest goalscorer, not to witness the wretched ball of frustration and misplaced passes that he has become.
They see it every now and again, brief remnants of the player he used to be. The drop of the shoulder against Hull, the cross for Zlatan against Southampton, and against their better judgement they think, “maybe, just maybe there’s some hope.”
But that’s not what they are really seeing – instead, what they actually see is the brief spark of a dying light, the decaying residue of a supreme talent.
Rooney’s biggest problem isn’t the spiralling decline that he is in, it’s that he refuses to acknowledge and accept it. Enclosing himself in a bubble where everything is ok and he is not a fading force is no way to tackle this – if he wants to have any sort of career going forward he needs to accept what is happening to him and understand how to cope with it.
What that will result in, it’s hard to say. Moving him around the pitch at number ten, on the wing, central midfield, none of that works because he keeps making the same mistakes but in different areas of the pitch. Both he and his manager(s) need to work on his diminishing game and maximising what is left, not shoehorning him into the team and hoping for the best.
The longer this goes on, the worse it will get.
Perhaps, however, he is all too aware of what is happening and simply can’t comprehend why he’s not playing like a 25-year-old anymore. He is, after all, still only 30 – players are not supposed to decline so rapidly at that age.
The likes of Giggs, Scholes and Neville all faded, but they were all well into their 30s when that happened. And maybe that’s another part of the problem – Rooney feels that he is still young enough to turn this around, not realising terms he is already playing like he is of the age where the aforementioned trio knew their time at the top was up.
Of course, those surrounding themselves around Rooney are not helping. He may only trust the opinions of his teammates and coaches now, but the other players are hardly going to tell their captain how badly he’s playing, while the coaches follow suit and just smile and nod at Wazza in an Emperor’s New Clothes-type scenario.
And for all of his gripes with the media, his former teammates and acquaintances are doing their best to balance that out. The excuse-making has reached ridiculous levels. Phil Neville, for example, looks like he’s about to burst into tears every time someone asks him to express an unbiased opinion, then gives the sort of answer that suggests he really shouldn’t have a microphone in front of him.
Right now, Rooney is only in the team for political reasons – he has to be. José Mourinho is not blind or stupid. He didn’t have the authority to burst into Carrington and immediately drop the captain (though the José of a decade ago might have, and the Pep Guardiola of today almost certainly would have), but he is surely giving Rooney enough rope to hang himself until there is simply no plausible excuse for keeping him in the team.
That day may have already come, and if Rooney remains as ignorant and stubborn to his own diminishing talents as he has been in the last couple of years, there is no hope for his career.