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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Wayne Rooney leaves Manchester United at the right time and as an all-time great

Everton get a locally-born, club-supporting player on a free transfer at the age of 31, while United let go of a player in decline.

Wayne Rooney spent 13 seasons at Manchester United. Martin Rickett / Press Association
Wayne Rooney spent 13 seasons at Manchester United. Martin Rickett / Press Association

In August 2013 it was difficult to find a single Manchester United fan who wanted Wayne Rooney to stay at Old Trafford.

In a summer of immense change at United following the departure of Alex Ferguson and his key lieutenants, plus chief executive David Gill, the striker wanted to move to Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho wanted him.

In Manchester, coach Eric Steele, one of Ferguson’s departed right-hand men, was one of the few willing to defend Rooney.

“We were dying against Barcelona at Wembley,” he said of the 2011 Uefa Champions League final. “Then we got a great goal back. Who scored it? Wayne.

“Just remember that fans when you’re screaming for him to leave. Just remember who stepped up when Robin [van Persie] went nine goals without scoring last year. I’m a big supporter of Wayne.

“He’s had 10 years at Manchester United when he’s mainly been the highest-profile player at the club. Wayne’s brash and upfront, but he just wants to play every game as he has since he was 17.

“He’s played some football in that time and led the line for club and country.”

Yet Rooney wanted to leave United, initially after falling out with Ferguson.

“I think he sees a new challenge,” Steele said. “Is there anything wrong with that? He’s won everything there is to win at United. He hasn’t spoken out against United, hasn’t come out and said he wants to leave, but people are slamming him.”

Steele spoke out at a time when nobody at Old Trafford would talk about the Rooney situation, not least Rooney himself.

He always later denied that he wanted to leave, but fans were sceptical, just as they were when he denied that he wanted to join Manchester City.

Yet in Rooney’s private complaints about the club to friends in 2013 which found their way into the media, he was only echoing the concerns of the majority of fans – that the club was not spending enough on the calibre of players they should be buying.

That is one reason he wanted to go, but in a shift of United’s policy that continues to this day with David de Gea the present example, the club refused to sell a leading talent.

Steele, the man who scouted De Gea, was a lone voice in supporting Rooney against supporter criticism.

“If he scores a great goal or a goal in a big game then that will stop,” he said.

Rooney did not even need to do that. Opinion shifted within weeks. Wearing a surly demeanour as he warmed up as substitute, Rooney expected to be roundly booed in the first game of the season at Swansea City.

Instead, to his evident surprise half the United fans in the away end cheered him.

He became the best player for most of a poor season and his form – and United’s relative desperation – saw him sign a contract until 2019.

But, his form in the past two seasons has not warranted him being a starter, his goal output has slowed to a trickle and he no longer featured in Mourinho’s plans.

It is a win for everyone that he has moved on to Everton.

The Merseyside club get a locally-born, Everton-supporting player on a free transfer at the age of 31.

If he is as popular and influential in the dressing room at Goodison Park as he was at Old Trafford, it will be worth the nostalgia trip.

United, meanwhile, get one of their top earners off the payroll and avoid the more awkward situation of Rooney’s stock falling further if he picks up vast wages for doing little.

His desire to move to Everton gave United the edge over Chelsea when negotiating for Romelu Lukaku, who will travel the other way.

Amid a few lows, there were countless highs in Rooney’s 559 games for United.

Only five players, Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton, Paul Scholes, Bill Foulkes and Gary Neville, have played more games for the club.

None have scored more than Rooney’s 253 goals. He surpassed Charlton’s club record with a last-minute strike at Stoke City in January.

For more than a decade, the fearless, frenetic Rooney was a leading - and often the leading - player in some of the finest United teams.

He won five Premier League trophies, a European Cup and played in three Uefa Champions League finals.

He drove United to their 2016 FA Cup title, and scored a memorable acrobatic winner against Manchester City in a Manchester derby.

The long-time captain of England, too, Rooney also scored the goal which won United the Club World Cup in 2008.

He reached the very top and he stayed there. He is on his way down, but what a journey it has been.

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