Rooney's chance for redemption
Striker returns to scene of his World Cup shame
The stage was the Auf Schalke Arena, Gelsenkirchen, the time shortly after 6.15 local on July 1, 2006, and the dramatis personae were Wayne Rooney and Ricardo Carvalho.
It seemed the whole world was watching as the pair tangled. One man wasn't watching. "What happened?'' enquired Alex Ferguson yesterday.
The Manchester United manager was sitting backstage in this wonderful German stadium, occupying a pew where England's then coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, had to defend Rooney for his dismissal for stamping on the Portuguese centre-half in their World Cup quarter-final. "I wasn't aware it was in Gelsenkirchen,'' continued Ferguson. "I didn't actually see that game." No surprise. England were playing.
Yet the Scot still had to deal with some of the fall-out. When Cristiano Ronaldo, who had appeared to pressurise the referee, infamously winked at the Portuguese bench when Rooney was sent off, there was the potential for tension with Rooney when the two United players reported for pre-season.
Rooney is such a team player that he had absolved Ronaldo by the time the bus had left the Auf Schalke car park, much to the surprise of England colleagues, who were muttering all manner of unpleasantness about Ronaldo.
Clearly not the type to bear grudges, Rooney could still be forgiven for seeing today's return to Gelsenkirchen as an opportunity to make amends, to update a painful history lesson.
"You have to put bad moments behind you,'' shrugged Ferguson. For all United's sang froid on the subject, it was such a calamitous incident for Rooney and England that the story chased the striker into the Ruhr yesterday.
The episode related to his temperament, to his ability to perform at the highest level without his fuse being lit, an enduring concern. Rooney was so roundly castigated for his misdemeanour that Eriksson used his own farewell briefing to plead for calm. "Please, don't kill him,'' said the outgoing coach, as a chastened England packed up their troubles in new kit bags at their Baden Baden base.
Rooney has not enjoyed particularly good luck with all things German. As well as the red card in Gelsenkirchen, Rooney injured his ankle against Bayern Munich last season, hobbled off in the return game and then slumped out of the 2010 World Cup to Germany, whose 'keeper, Manuel Neuer, again bars his way this evening.
On the slide in South Africa, Rooney's reputation sustained further damage this season, continuing with the embarrassing contract saga, the elbow on Wigan's Irish international James McCarthy and then the infamous four-letter outpouring into the nation's front rooms via a camera lens.
Since 'Swear-gate', there seems to be a softening of Rooney's image. Stories have emerged revealing a different side to his character. A seriously ill five-year-old in hospital asked Rooney for a kiss, and he duly obliged; some heart-warming pictures ended up in the papers. On hearing that six hitherto wayward pupils had devoted themselves hard to their studies, Rooney quietly rewarded them by giving them his private box at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Rooney was suspended, following his tirade, and was sitting with the squad.
He met the schoolboys before kick-off, handed round some United kit and computer games. Many footballers do such good deeds, and rightly so, but word does not always seep out. Whether some discreet PR campaign is going on or not, Rooney has now popped up on Twitter, posting pictures of himself, chatting to fans and sending good wishes to people like Fernando Torres.
He even replied to a reporter's enquiry about what the 08 stood for in @wazzaroon08, explaining it was a tribute to United's Champions League success in Moscow. Rooney has already received some fairly abusive comments but has shown more stoicism than Darron Gibson, who terminated his Twitter account after only 97 minutes yesterday.
As the season builds towards its climax, Rooney's reputation is also being enhanced on the pitch. Fit and focused, some of his performances in recent weeks have been outstanding, particularly the two Chelsea games in the Champions League quarter-finals.
His fine finish, deciding the first leg at Stamford Bridge, inevitably dominated the headlines, but his display in the second match at Old Trafford was arguably as impressive. He was everywhere, pinging passes, dropping deep, harrying and creating. United regulars talked appreciatively of Rooney echoing Paul Scholes in his pomp.
The comparison continued with another terrific contribution against Everton.
A risk continues to cling to Rooney. Trouble could be around the corner. He scores a hat-trick against West Ham then tarnishes the moment with that invective. His feet are all eloquent Brazilian one minute, his mouth all pithy Anglo-Saxon the next.
But Rooney's current positive period should be encouraged, his charitable work noted, his desire to communicate with fans praised and his terrific football lauded.
Rooney's class was acknowledged by Schalke centre-half Christoph Metzelder, who faced him in Bloemfontein. "Rooney plays a lot like a No 10,'' said Metzelder. "He drops back. We saw that against Chelsea when he was almost a holding midfielder. He loses his marker so well."
Schalke's coach, Ralf Rangnick, raised a quizzical eyebrow at the suggestion that Rooney will want to banish the memory of Gelsenkirchen with a world-class show.
"That's the first I've heard of that,'' replied Rangnick. "Rooney is an important part of the opposition, and we've got to face that. Only if you British journalists spoke to Rooney about that would it come into anyone's imagination that it would play a role here."
It does, though. The "redemption'' headlines will be everywhere if he delivers tonight. He's certainly in the mood. "Wayne Rooney's form has been absolutely fantastic over the last two months,'' said Ferguson.
"Good players create their own platforms in the sense of the importance of their performance. Wayne, more than anyone, realises that performances are the thing that he will always be judged on because there is an expectation of the boy. You see that he has stepped up to the mark for that -- and proved himself entirely.'' He stills needs to prove a point in Gelsenkirchen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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