Column: Versatile Rooney is smart move for Man Utd history

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Posted: Feb 17, 2015 11:54 AM
Column: Versatile Rooney is smart move for Man Utd history

Before Wayne Rooney hangs up his boots, the decent thing would be for Buckingham Palace to invite over the Manchester United and England captain to give him a shiny medal.

Not, certainly not yet, make him a knight like Sir Bobby Charlton, the England and United legend whose scoring records Rooney has in his sights. But at least bestow upon him a lesser honor, say MBE — Member of the Order of the British Empire — like his Liverpool counterpart Steven Gerrard, or OBE — Officer of the Order of the British Empire — like Ryan Giggs, his former teammate now assistant to United manager Louis van Gaal.

Rooney deserves recognition not simply for his huge services to English football — 46 goals for England, just three shy of Charlton's mark, and a starring role in the Premier League's global conquest of football — but also because of his transformation into a model professional in these later stages of his career. The striker who made it abundantly clear in Alex Ferguson's final year as manager that he wasn't happy being played out of position in midfield, essentially putting his own interests before those of his team, has become Mr. Flexible and Accommodating under Van Gaal, no job too big or too small. And that is to his credit.

"Model" isn't a term one would have applied to Rooney before now. The rough-to-riches story of the footballing prodigy from Liverpool has always been a remarkable one. But he had a foul mouth, a foul temper and an enduring callowness that made him impossible to admire as a person. He celebrated a hat-trick against West Ham in 2011 by yelling the F-word into a pitch-side television camera. His rage boiled over too frequently into red cards. His biography of 2006, the year he turned 21, painted a picture of a rich but shallow star. He said he doesn't vote, doesn't care for newspapers or world affairs and "I'm brilliant at doing absolutely nothing."

Under new management, Rooney has been a picture of maturity, application, patience and understanding. Van Gaal, in his first year in Ferguson's shoes that proved far too big for David Moyes, has been curiously indecisive in his still unfinished search for a convincing lineup. A certain amount of tinkering was always to be expected from one of the most tactically astute, demanding and inventive coaches in the game. But some of Van Gaal's chops and changes with lineups have been confusing. The football has carried the labored, sluggish and telegraphed look of players unsure of each other and their own place and so not comfortable taking risks.

Part of the reason Van Gaal has been able to experiment is that Rooney, his captain, has been outwardly so willing and certainly able to chop and change, too. Van Gaal has played Rooney not only up front in attack where he made his name and where he wanted to play exclusively for Ferguson, but also behind two strikers and further back in central and even defensive midfield. Van Gaal has suggested that the only position Rooney won't play is in goal.

Some fans and pundits worry that Rooney is being wasted and short-changed in midfield and that, from there, he might not get the 25 more goals he needs to overtake Charlton, who netted 249, as United's all-time top scorer. But that is short-sighted.

By adapting to Van Gaal's needs, Rooney is keeping himself relevant. At 29, he still has time to beat Charlton's record, just so long as he stays in the team. Those 25 goals may take longer to get than they used to when Rooney was scoring 20 or 30 a season. His ferocious penalty kick in United's 3-1 victory against Preston in the FA Cup on Monday night was Rooney's first goal of 2015 and just his ninth in 24 appearances for United this season.

But even at this rate, the United record should be Rooney's in two or three more solid seasons, if he keeps working to stay in Van Gaal's good books and impressing him with his usefulness and ability to fit into the Dutchman's latest formation. What benefits the team now benefits Rooney, too.

"He's happy. Otherwise he should come to me and say, 'I'm not happy,'" says Van Gaal. "But he never do(es) and he's always friendly to me."

That is smart of Rooney. The invite from the palace can surely be only a matter of time.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester