Football’s fallen idols can become a cross to bear for supporters

Heavy emotions are at play when fan favourites like Rooney and Walters lose their form

Most United fans hope that Wayne Rooney will somehow reverse what seems like a terminal decline. Photograph:  Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Most United fans hope that Wayne Rooney will somehow reverse what seems like a terminal decline. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

 

Crowds waving handkerchiefs is not a common sight in English football, unlike in Spain, but given the current struggles of Wayne Rooney and Stoke City perhaps it should be.

Spanish football fans’ habit of waving white hankies tends to be derisive, signifying that they wish a hapless manager gone. In bullfighting it can have a more positive slant, meaning that a bull should be pardoned rather than killed in recognition of a particularly valiant performance.

Generous, eh? If the authorities opt to grant the pardon, they convey the decision with an orange handkerchief. It all brings a level of clarity to proceedings that groans and social media rants do not, and the choice of hankies as the medium acknowledges the heavy emotions at play.

It is not what you would call a damnable oversight but if Manchester United had developed a colour-coded handkerchief system at any point in the club’s 138-year history, then fans at Old Trafford would now have an easy way to indicate what they think should be done with Rooney: green, say, for ‘let him play his way back into form’, white for ‘take him out of the firing line for a while’, pink for ‘try a new position’ and brown for ‘get rid’.

In the absence of such a system, there is only fidgeting and murmurs of disquiet when the team is announced and the club’s second highest all-time scorer is included again. Booing is not nuanced enough to be deployed at this stage. Social media is a chicken’s mess. And anyone who suggests trailing a banner from an airplane needs to be answered with an emphatic hand gesture.

Most United fans, then, are left hoping that Rooney will somehow reverse what seems like a terminal decline, or that José Mourinho will demonstrate ruthlessness so they do not have to. Most people do not want to be seen rounding bluntly on a club icon, even if he once threatened to defect to rivals.

Floundering

Stoke fans have it even harder. It is one thing that Mark Hughes, the only manager to guide the club to three successive top-half finishes in the top division and the introducer of a charming style of play, now seems to be floundering.

But managers seem less sacred, as Arsenal fans proved at Stoke two years ago when they harassed Arsène Wenger at the local train station following a defeat to Hughes’s team – way before any “Thanks for the memories but it’s time to say goodbye” banners appeared in the Emirates.

Turning against cherished players, on the other hand, feels more craven. Which is why there is an aching sadness to Stoke’s position at the bottom of the Premier League.

The club’s supporters take largely silent discomfort in noting that woeful performances are partially due to the dwindling of Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan and even Ryan Shawcross. Shawcross, for so long a formidable centre back who personified Stoke’s refusal to bow to supposed superiors, has not been his indomitable self since being afflicted by back trouble last year.

He is only 28 so recovery is not out of the question but, at present, he seems diminished, unable to bring order to a Stoke defence that Tony Pulis will not recognise when he returns to his old stomping ground with West Bromwich Albion today.

The prospects of recovery look slimmer for Whelan (32) and, most disturbingly of all, Walters (33).

These are players whose characters and play have helped define the club in their Premier League years – their dynamism, selflessness and frill-free quality has fuelled many a triumph over adversity.

It feels wrong to call for them to be dropped but Stoke fans discreetly admit that their inability to galumph around the pitch as effectively as before is one of the reasons for the team’s vulnerability.

Vexing complication

A vexing complication is the fact no younger player has yet emerged to allow Whelan, Walters and Shawcross to be used more sparingly. One reason for that is injuries, another is inadequate investment, another is unfulfilled potential.

Giannelli Imbula, signed for £18 million in January, has been too inconsistent to displace Whelan. When Xherdan Shaqiri was injured Hughes gave little action to Ramadan Sobhi, the teenage Egyptian signed in the summer with a view to easing any reliance on Walters.

Perhaps Whelan and Walters – and Rooney – are to an extent victims of the fact that their managers can at least count on them to work tirelessly even when in need of rest.

Walters has been written off before, towards the end of Pulis’s reign, and came back strongly, endearing himself even further to Stoke fans, who are particularly reluctant to vent against ageing wingers, what with there being a statue outside their ground of Stanley Matthews, who played for them until just after his 50th birthday and later declared: “It was a mistake to pack it in, I could have gone on for another two years.”

If sheer gumption were enough for a player to play until his 50s, then Walters would be a good bet to make it.

But a mighty will does not suffice. Pass the hankies because that almost makes grown men weep, or holler for former favourites to be jilted. Guardian service

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