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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Wayne Rooney's romantic return to Everton risks backfiring on Ronald Koeman

Football's oldest 31-year-old has been in decline for a while and the probability of resurrecting his career looks difficult, if not impossible.

Wayne Rooney in a 2015 file photo. Peter Byrne / Press Association
Wayne Rooney in a 2015 file photo. Peter Byrne / Press Association

Sometimes the predictable can contain an element of the odd. It was hard to imagine Wayne Rooney in China and no shock that his preference when leaving Manchester United was to return to Goodison Park.

Once a blue, always a blue, as a T-shirt he revealed as a teenager read, and he has raised his sons as Evertonians. It was equally unsurprising that Everton’s sentimental chairman Bill Kenwright would want a boyhood fan and former player back in blue.

Rooney’s second coming can be seen as a romantic return, but the intrigue lies in the pragmatists pursuing the deal, manager Ronald Koeman, director of football Steve Walsh and majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. Perhaps the owner wants the reflected glory of signing one of the world’s most famous footballers. Often obscured, Everton have propelled themselves into the ranks of A-Listers, and not just by spending around £100 million (Dh453.5m) on younger additions.

If Rooney had other few options, Everton, equipped with a big budget, did. Koeman and Walsh are radically reshaping Everton. They are an outspoken independent thinker and the most influential recruiter in English football respectively, men whose views are instructive and interesting.

The evidence of last season was that Rooney would not get in the Everton side; the oldest 31-year-old in the game has been declining for years, a process that has accelerated over the past 18 months and will presumably continue. If physical decay is inevitable, sooner or later, the greater issue can be Rooney’s inability to compensate by exerting an influence with technical talent and reading of the game. His greatest contribution has seemed to come off the field.

He was showered with compliments at Old Trafford for his attitude but his profile makes his presence outside the team a problem and an unwanted distraction. Jose Mourinho was careful to answer questions about his captain respectfully, but Rooney’s new manager proved altogether blunter in his appraisals of Ross Barkley last season. Koeman’s candour is riskier with a player of Rooney’s celebrity.

Perhaps the Dutchman, with his considerable faith in his own ability, can address the perception he is recruiting a waning Rooney. Maybe Walsh’s capacity to identify specific roles that suit players will result in a rejuvenated Rooney. Maybe.

Walsh is the Moneyball-style numbers man who railroaded Claudio Ranieri into signing N’Golo Kante for Leicester and walked into Everton and immediately urged them to sign another with superb statistics for tackling and interceptions, Idrissa Gueye.

Rooney’s career figures add up – 253 goals in 559 games for United – but there were only nine in his last 50 matches. The brutal truth is that United will not miss the player he had become. Once a striker, seemingly Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, is signed, they will have at least three better options in every position.

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And another of Everton’s mooted targets, Gylfi Sigurdsson, would be a more logical Walsh buy. The Icelander was the most creative player outside the top seven. He prospered at the numbers game. He lends goals and assists in copious quantities. He is flexible enough to flourish on the left flank.

Rooney used to be defined by his selfless versatility. Now it is more notable which roles he cannot fill: Mourinho concluded last summer that his captain was not a midfielder, except in emergencies. Nor is a No 9 in the mould of the quicker, bigger Lukaku. Putting Rooney up front could be replacing a potent weapon with a blunt spearhead.

The seeming bargain Sandro Ramirez or a possible buy like Olivier Giroud would be more compelling front-runners. If Rooney is a No 10, it is worth noting Everton prospered in the second half of last season without one. Even with a change of tack and tactic, the classy newcomer Davy Klaassen would seem the prime candidate. Rooney is a potential roadblock to others.

If Everton’s fate may depend upon the question of who takes over from Lukaku, their dealings may be defined, because of his fame, by how Rooney fares, rather than by men such as Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane, who offer the promise of a decade’s fine service in the new-look defence.

Rooney has been among the best-paid players in England as the gulf between reputation and reality has grown. His salary will be sizeable. If he faces a battle to justify it, Koeman and Walsh’s often admired judgment will be called into question if he loses it. It is a comeback with the possibility to rebound on all involved.

Wayne Rooney with Everton chairman Bill Kenwright.
Wayne Rooney with Everton chairman Bill Kenwright.