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Jul 18, 2013

Rooney short of legend status at United

David Moyes' reign at Old Trafford had barely officially begun when he voiced his belief that a man who had swapped Merseyside for Manchester could make history. Not him, however. Instead, Wayne Rooney, the previous defector from Goodison Park, had the opportunity to break records.

"Wayne is only 50 goals behind Sir Bobby Charlton, and I think 40 behind Denis Law," the Scot said. "We are looking to see if we can get Wayne Rooney getting those goals, so that he can challenge the totals of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law."

Now that looks distinctly unlikely. But the bare facts are that Rooney has 197 goals for Manchester United. Law ended up with 237, Charlton 249. Given two injury-free seasons as a first choice - not the guarantee it once was - Rooney could stand alone. Should he spend the rest of his career at Old Trafford - which, again, seemed a safer bet in the past than it does now - his current total of 400 matches would be swelled considerably. The rather exclusive 700 club comprises of Charlton, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Should he choose to - and it now seems he won't - Rooney could become its next member.

Games and goals can give a statistical case for greatness. Yet it also provokes questions about Rooney's place in the pantheon of United's finest footballers. Team-mates invariably described a colleague as "a great player". For it to be a credible assessment, however, exacting standards have to be applied.

And in United's glorious past, 11 players have a cast-iron case to be called greats: Charlton, Law, Giggs and Scholes plus Duncan Edwards, George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo. There is a temptation to round it up to a dozen by including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, not least because he was United's perfect 12th man, just as there are grounds to augment the magnificent 11 with others, from Billy Meredith a century ago to Nemanja Vidic now.

But Charlton and co are not Rooney's peers. Not yet, and should he leave Old Trafford this summer, not ever. Rooney belongs in the bracket below them. There is no disgrace in that: so do, to name but two, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mark Hughes, other decorated, deadly strikers with at least 150 United goals to their name. If Best and the best are the greats, they are the very goods.

If it feels like damning Rooney with faint praise, it is because of the gulf between his status off the field and his standing on it. He is the best-paid player in United's history and their biggest name. Yet if Rooney is United's most famous player, Robin van Persie is their finest, his place at the top of the striking pecking order reaffirmed by Moyes and apparently irritating the Merseysider.

After five league titles and three Champions League finals, one of them won, it may be unfair to say Rooney's fame outstrips his achievements. His trophy cabinet is packed, his goals return healthy. Yet great players define their era or decide the destination of the major honours.

Perhaps, then, Rooney is unfortunate that his Champions League final goal came in a comprehensive defeat to Barcelona in 2011; that the two seasons when he won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award were 2005-06, when United were resoundingly mediocre, and 2009-10, when he was brilliant but the only honour the club secured was the League Cup. That, indeed, was the sole campaign when Rooney ranked in the world's top 10 players.

In 2011-12, he contributed 34 goals, many of them important - and Rooney has a decent record of providing significant strikes - but Antonio Valencia was deservedly named United's Player of the Year. The Englishman's performances were altogether more mixed: it has been a recurring theme in the last three seasons.

Indeed, despite his individual heroics in the season after Ronaldo decamped to Real Madrid, arguably the most fruitful period in his United career came in their final three years together. As Ronaldo shed his early inconsistency, became more ruthless and became, briefly, the world's foremost footballer, there was a role reversal. One gravitated from the flanks to the penalty box, the other made the opposite journey. Rooney became a superbly unselfish adjutant to a great player, rather than, as was long predicted, one in his own right.

Last year, as Van Persie displaced him to become the focal point of the attack, Rooney appeared reluctant to reprise that role. He appears unsettled by the presence of excellence alongside him when he should be inspired by it.

And an examination of the United greats shows the twin paths to greatness. The most obvious was adopted by players such as Ronaldo, Cantona and Best, luminous talents who were their teams' matchwinner-in-chief. But there is another model, provided by Giggs and Scholes, men who were not always their side's dominant individual. Their eminence owed much to adaptability and longevity. While Van Persie now reigns supreme at Old Trafford, Rooney had the chance to emulate the two old-timers by accepting a place among the supporting cast. That, it seems, was not enough for him. And so he may go, leaving a legacy but not departing as a legend.

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