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Making history

March 17, 2010

Wayne Rooney will go down in history as a United great

“History will decide, say people airily. Of course history will do no such thing. What they mean to say is that historians of the future will judge the times we live in and make all manner of assumptions on the basis that events can be seen clearer from a distance.”

So wrote Henry Porter in Sunday’s Observer.

Though taken horribly out of context – Porter was ruminating on whether Blair and Bush will be vindicated, in years to come, for invading Iraq – it is worth considering who has the best vantage point: those present at the time, or looking back with years of reflection and taking into account all that has occurred since?

Examine this idea in light of football fandom. How good, for example, was George Best? Most Manchester United fans have to rely on stories from their elders, the odd Youtube highlights compilation, occasional 90-minute DVDs or football history books – almost invariably hagiographies celebrating a legend of a bygone age.

The current heir to Best – and to Charlton, Law, Meredith and all those irrevocably printed in the glorious history of Manchester United – is surely Wayne Rooney. But how will this, his most productive season to date, be remembered in years to come?

If United win their fourth straight English league title in May, 2010 will be remembered as the year Wayne Rooney won the Premier League – in the same way 2008’s domestic and European success is usually mentioned alongside Cristiano Ronaldo’s 42 goals.

Such judgements are, of course, unfair on the rest of the team. It takes a squad to win a league. In the past this has also been unfair on Rooney, whose contribution to the last three titles was largely overlooked in light of the Madeiran winger’s spectacular exploits.

In fact this season’s form is not so much a significant and unexpected improvement in form, as a natural progression and development aided, of course, by the decision of Alex Ferguson to yield to his player‘s requests and use him up front. He has honed his role as a lone striker while continuing to drop deep and link up when required (it is usual strike partner Dimitar Berbatov’s penchant for this as well that sometimes means United look unbalanced. This has improved immeasurably in the last few weeks).

Chances are that Rooney will win plenty of end-of-season awards, which mean nothing without team triumphs to perch alongside. But even if United do not win the title – and, though they are motoring into what is often termed ‘ominous’ form, they have the hardest run-in of the current top 3 – Rooney’s season will most probably go down in history.

The effect of his elevation to one of the world’s best – never a particularly scientific (nor, as a result, useful) measure by which to assess a player – has been magnified by the myriad weaknesses demonstrated by United in the season so far. This side is not yet being Ferguson’s fourth or fifth great one, despite recent form. But it does have one his great individuals.

His ability, to those who remained unconvinced while he was at Everton, was demonstrated on his first appearance for United in 2004, when the 18-year-old netted a hat trick against Fenerbahce. How much better could he realistically get? Though less explosive since then, his continued brilliance has been in evidence throughout his six years at Old Trafford – he did a superb job in many games on the left hand side, his less favoured position, in a system (it has become clear) less suited to his talent.

Despite Didier Drogba’s recent aberration against Inter, he has had as good a season for Chelsea as Rooney has for United. In most years his record would be enough to sweep the board at the end of season awards. It is likely that either he or Rooney will claim the Premier League trophy at the end of the season, but whoever lifts it, it will be remembered as Rooney’s season – regardless of what happens in Europe or at the World Cup.

Indeed it is feasible that in ten years’ time, Wayne Rooney will be regarded as Manchester United’s greatest ever player.

History, Churchill said, is written by the victors – in just a few more games we will know whether this season’s will be written about them.

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