LONDON - Early in Wayne Rooney’s time at Manchester United, a psychologist visited the club’s training ground and one of the things he talked about was retirement.
‘You reach 32 and you are coming to the edge of the cliff,’ recalled Roy Keane, one of Rooney’s predecessors as United captain.
‘The psychologist said the descent could be gradual or “Bump” - you’re over the cliff. You just hope it will be gradual.’
Rooney is 31 now and looking over the edge. Retirement doesn’t wait at the bottom but a life away from United does. For many players that ends up being the same thing sooner than they think.
Rooney’s march for the exit at Old Trafford seems to accelerate with each passing week. For much of this season his poor form has been the topic of debate.
Jose Mourinho arrived at United last summer expecting Rooney to be fundamental to his rebuilding project. Soon he decided Rooney was peripheral. Now the suitable adjective is expendable.
This weekend the talk returned to another familiar Rooney topic - his lifestyle. The Sun newspaper informed us that Rooney lost £500 000 in two hours in a Manchester casino two months ago. Those familiar with Rooney’s games of choice - blackjack and roulette - say that is a phenomenal amount to fritter away in such a short time, though the Rooney camp claim the sum was around half that.
Rooney was gambling alone, after midnight on a Thursday. That in itself is a sobering image for a team sports player, a leader, a young man who likes to socialise.
So the picture of Rooney’s life and career was not a good one as we watched him at White Hart Lane on Sunday. As Tottenham said farewell to their stadium and Mourinho rested key players ahead of next Wednesday’s Europa League final, Rooney was handed a rare starting spot.
And what did we see? The gradual extinguishing of a flame. There was a consolation goal and there were the two best passes of the game, one in each half. We saw commitment and energy and a booking as some irritation grew.
But as United laboured against a superior team, it was hard not to judge Rooney by the standards of modern excellence. These days that comes in the shape of Tottenham players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier.
In terms of his football intelligence and feel for the rhythm of a game, Rooney remains unchanged, competitive. These were always his great gifts. But physically modern Premier League football started to look a big ask for Rooney a while ago.
In sport, comparisons are everywhere and it can be tough. For Rooney the ghost of glories past is Cristiano Ronaldo. The two men are of similar age — Ronaldo is eight months older — and won domestic and European trophies together at United.
But while Ronaldo pushes on at Real Madrid, Rooney treads water. Ronaldo is a physical phenomenon, of course, and most fall short by comparison. But he has also looked after himself impeccably during a club career that comprises in excess of 50 more club starts than his old team-mate.
In the days of Paul Gascoigne, the late Sir Bobby Robson used to talk of his ‘refuelling’ habits, and Rooney would have been at home in that era. In this one, he has walked a fine line at times. A good trainer, Rooney’s fondness for a drink has nevertheless led him into conflict with his managers over the years.
Sir Alex Ferguson saw the decline coming before anyone else. Didn’t he always? Fergie was ready to sell Rooney in the summer of 2013 only for his own retirement to get in the way. That summer, with David Moyes in charge, United fought desperately to keep their striker out of the hands of Chelsea.
The manager so keen on signing him was Mourinho but he knew even then what he would be getting, jokingly referring to Rooney as ‘fat boy’.
Rooney does not socialise with the reckless enthusiasm of some of his United predecessors. The likes of Bryan Robson and Paul McGrath do not have to worry for their reputations. Equally, he has never lived as frugally as many contemporaries and it is impossible not to wonder if it has contributed to the dying of a light that has made him the record scorer for his club and country.
Rooney’s England career is likely to be over before the World Cup rolls round in 2018. Gareth Southgate does not see him as a competitor for a starting position and Rooney’s poor club form has combined with front page newspaper stories to provide the England manager with an excuse to jettison him whenever he wants.
Rooney believes he can still contribute but if he wants to influence the England boss he will have to do so from another club.
Just last week, Rooney was asked about his future. Rather uncomfortably, he said that ‘of course’ he wanted to stay at United but added that he also needed to ‘play football’. United will seek to move him on this summer but may need to take a financial hit to do so. Everton manager Ronaldo Koeman has spoken glibly of an interest but one wonders how on earth Rooney’s old club could afford to pay him and indeed whether he would find a way into the Dutchman’s improving team.
A move to China is possible but if Rooney did make that step he knows it would be a tacit acceptance that his days as a serious footballer are over.
Do not forget that most footballers have their pride and Rooney certainly does. Those who observe him daily at Carrington tell of a player as hungry to succeed as ever and one who has not caused Mourinho a moment of bother since it became clear he was no longer a first team shoo-in.
Rooney has been a great Manchester United footballer. This autumn will mark 15 years since his debut for Everton. It has been a fine career already but here we return to Keane again.
‘I was doing OK (towards the end), wasn’t embarrassing myself,’ he wrote in his book The Second Half. ‘But I wasn’t dominating games like I used to.’
That wasn’t enough for the great Irishman and, seven months after leaving United in November 2006, he declared himself retired. There was no gradual descent from the cliff face. We can only hope Rooney manages the fall rather better.