People, especially soccer fans and soccer journalists, do have a short memory. We are reminded of this only too often.
One of the latest discussion points in the world of (English) soccer has been Louis van Gaal’s appointment of Wayne Rooney as captain of Manchester United. Fans and, perhaps especially, journalists and “experts” have been quick to question van Gaal’s choice. The Dutch manager explained in no equivocal way his choice of Rooney for the prestigious role: “Wayne has shown a great attitude towards everything he does. I have been very impressed by his professionalism and his attitude to training and to my philosophy. He is a great inspiration to the younger members of the team and I believe he will put his heart and soul into his captaincy role.” Before actually appointing Rooney the new captain of United, van Gaal had already hinted that nationality and culture were important parameters in his considerations: “I think you have to choose, when it is possible, for the English style.”
To me, van Gaal’s arguments quite simply make sense. Rooney has been a leading figure at Old Trafford for a decade, both as a player and a personality, and this makes him the obvious choice. In addition, van Gaal underlines Rooney’s intellectual ability to absorb the new “philosophy” as well as his emotional investment into the role. In short, he’s got both the brain and the heart to fulfill the role.
Van Gaal could have gone for Robin van Persie, his (soccer) philosophical soul mate, but van Persie does not have the Old Trafford history of Rooney, and his injury record and age may also have persuaded van Gaal to look elsewhere. With the necessary squad overhaul looming large in the near future back in July and August, van Gaal could not be certain that the likes of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, two other obvious candidates, would be able to maintain a regular spot in what he hoped would be a re-vamped Manchester United team. Finally, David de Gea, apparently the only one apart from van Gaal’s captain who may be sure of a starting spot, does not fit the captain’s bill in terms of personality, experience, and authority.
So, what is it that the many Rooney-critical voices have been complaining about? Well, first of all there has been the “Paul Parker side” claiming that Rooney has played awful soccer this season and that he hasn’t been able to lift the team when this was needed the most (lethargy against Burnley, collapse against Leicester). I simply don’t agree with this. To me, Rooney has been one of United’s best performers this season. It may be that Van Gaal himself has contributed to this strand of criticism by saying that Rooney played well as a forward (against QPR) but not “spectacularly”, and that he thought Radamel Falcao might do a better striking job. But van Gaal nevertheless kept Rooney in his team by moving him into the whole behind the two strikers and thus pushing Mata out on the bench.
Some critics have also claimed Rooney to be burdened by the captain’s armband and thus not performing to his past standards. Neither do I agree with this. On the contrary, I am sure that the extra responsibility is just what Rooney needs at this time in his career in order to lift his game and get his old fire back.
One thing is certain, and that is that Rooney’s style and approach to the game has changed during the last decade. Naturally, he has lost some pace, but he has also learned to be more economical with his running, just as his vision and ability to dictate the team’s rhythm have developed greatly. We see the first signs of Rooney naturally moving a bit further down the pitch just as Paul Scholes did during his career.
However, the latest criticism of Rooney – and of Rooney as captain of United – emerged and accelerated into unbelievable heights after his moment of madness against West Ham when he received a red card for hacking down Stewart Downing way into the latter’s own half. Van Gaal, who politically incorrect (“You may not want to hear this, but…”) drew attention to the fact that professional fouls by professional players do in fact happen in a professional sport, characterized Rooney’s efforts as “a bit too unfriendly” compared to the other four or five professional fouls in the match, some of which not even got punished by a yellow card. Now, this reminds me of Alex Ferguson’s policy of never criticizing his own players in front of the camera. Admittedly, we have seen van Gaal do just this (remember, Rooney was not “spectacular”, and earlier in the season Luke Shaw was “unfit”, both characterizations vented openly on television), but in this case he leaped to the defense of his captain. Van Gaal may have accepted the color of the card, but at the same time he relativized the incident by emphasizing that Rooney’s only mistake was that he went into the tackle a little too hard.
And now we come back to the short memories of fans and journalists. What Wayne Rooney did against West Ham may at first glance look plain stupid, since he let down his teammates, and van Gaal may also have been a bit angry with his captain, maybe even furious (although I don’t think so). However, with his action – and if we think about it for a while – Rooney merely inscribed himself into a long (and, “you may not want to here this, but” also glorious) history of devilish United captains with a propensity for the color red.
Rooney’s immediate predecessor, Nemanja Vidic, received his fair share of red cards during his Old Trafford career. Strangely, his role as captain was never questioned in the wake of his red cards. Before Vidic, there are especially two players who come to mind and who remind me the most of Rooney’s case. If Vidic’s red cards lacked the demonism that was an integral part of Rooney’s behavior and subsequent red card against West Ham, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona both had demonic personalities that brought them many dismissals during their Old Trafford careers. Roy Keane’s brainless touchline attack on Marc Overmars in the epic and mythic FA Cup semifinal replay in 1999 between Manchester United and Arsenal meant that he let down his teammates in their common pursuit of the historic treble. It took a superb penalty save from Peter Schmeichel and perhaps the best goal ever in United’s history by Ryan Giggs in order for United to progress from that semifinal. The point is that Keane’s ferociousness and stupid action are vital and indispensable elements in the mythology of that season and that particular epic match just as his pact with the devil was what made him what he was: his generation’s most dominant engine room operator.
With Cantona, it becomes even more demonic, but, accordingly, also the more fascinating. His infamous Kung-Fu assault on a Crystal Palace “fan” in 1995 was an act of transgression. Much has been written about it – either in the line of “Cantona should have been punished harder and expelled from soccer for ever,” or of “Cantona set down a marker in regard to how much abuse soccer players should accept” – but my main point here is simply to draw attention to these demonic players and our ambiguous and, sometimes, hypocritical relationship to them.
Hardly anyone would question the rationality behind Alex Ferguson’s choice of Cantona and Keane as Manchester United captains, neither today nor back then. In fact, those two players are probably the epitomes of Old Trafford captains during Ferguson’s highly successful era. Admittedly, Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce played important roles, too, but Cantona personifies the transformation of United from perennial Merseyside chasers into the most successful club in England, and Roy Keane is the emblem of the Treble winning side of 1999. A further point of mine is that it is precisely their demonic personalities that make them stand out as exceptional captains in the history of United. Cantona’s and Keane’s pacts with the devil, with the red devil, is a necessary ingredient in their overall soccer identity and mythology, and the same is true of Rooney.
For the last couple of years, Rooney has been criticized for having lost his fire by the very same commentators who now question his ability to captain United after his deed against West Ham. Now that he seems to have gotten his fire back, this is wrong, too.
Of course, his behavior against Downing was a transgressive act, but at the same time it is these moments of madness and transgressions that constitute the foundations for soccer’s mythological potentials just as they are the prerequisites for these players’ true greatness.
Rooney’s red card against West Ham is therefore not evidence of his unsuitability for the Old Trafford captaincy. If it is anything of the sort, it is rather a premonition of his future legendary status alongside other demonic captains such as Keane and Cantona.