Monday, December 11, 2017

Rooney returns to Everton – but will it be the fairytale resurrection he requires?

The prodigal son has returned. Wayne Rooney is back at Everton.

Once a blue, always a blue – though only after a 13-year, history-making spell as a red.

Rooney returns to Goodison Park not as the world beater he promised to be after breaking into the Everton team aged 16 and emphatically announcing himself as one of England’s most exciting young talents with a screamer against Arsenal, but as a player who has lost his way and endured a sustained decline over the past three seasons.

Nothing could be more reinvigorating for Rooney than heading back to his boyhood club and playing a role in their attempt to break into the top four and push for new heights in a glorious finale. However, if he is unable to bust out of the rut and rediscover his best form, it will bookend his career at the top of the domestic and international game in England.

Rooney was ousted from the Manchester United team by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the veteran striker’s phenomenal 28-goal haul in 2016-17 highlighting his team-mate’s shortcomings in front of goal in recent seasons. Ibrahimovic offered an imposing, clinical figure to lead the attack that Rooney simply could not match. With Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial offering pace and energy the captain no longer possessed, his game time became increasingly restricted and led to just 15 Premier League starts – his lowest total since his debut campaign in 2002-03.

In the season that he became United’s all-time leading goalscorer with an excellent free-kick against Stoke City last January, Rooney also found himself phased out of the England squad and removed from the captaincy.

It was clear something needed to change for the 31-year-old, and Romelu Lukaku’s impending £75million move to Old Trafford opened the door for Rooney to head in the opposite direction. He now has a chance to revive a precariously positioned, dwindling career.

Former team-mate Ryan Giggs saw his role reduced at United in his latter years, something the Welshman was content with in order to stay with the club that gave him his professional breakthrough. Of course, Giggs was approaching his 40s at the time – Rooney is 31.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, ex-England colleagues of Rooney, left their beloved clubs in the final stages of their careers to seek greater playing time elsewhere. Gerrard departed Liverpool to continue operating as a key man at LA Galaxy while Lampard moved on to New York City, although he spent a season on loan at Manchester City where he was used predominantly as a substitute.

Perhaps it was an acceptance that Rooney could not provide the same threat in attack and a desire to remain an important first-team figure that led to an unsuccessful attempt to remodel himself as a central midfielder under Louis van Gaal. His range of passing is impressive, but proved insufficient in attempting to operate as the creative hub of the team.

With Olivier Giroud reportedly still a target for Everton despite Rooney’s arrival, it seems unlikely he will be relied upon to lead the line by Ronald Koeman. A deeper-lying role could well be in the offing, especially with Ross Barkley’s future at Goodison Park looking increasingly doubtful with no extension agreed to a contract that runs out in under a year.

Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho struggled to fit the current version of Rooney into a working system, and he will need to work closely with Koeman to ensure his fairytale comeback is not the damp squib it threatens to be.

But if there is one place he can rediscover his best form, it is Everton.

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