James Lawton: Rooney in the mould of past master Keane
Published 19/02/2010 | 05:00
It was a little further up the road in Turin where Roy Keane made his supreme statement of leadership by example and a blistering tongue.
Still, what Wayne Rooney pulled off in the San Siro on Tuesday put him on precisely the same terrain occupied by the ferocious Irishman when he refused to allow Manchester United to slide out of the Champions League 11 years ago.
Keane did it with a superbly headed goal and an example of commitment which had Bobby Charlton, among others, up on his feet for most of United's extraordinary recovery.
Rooney produced two scoring headers as United recovered from a dysfunctional start against Milan, but the real point of comparison was not in the goals column -- which Rooney is now invading with such growing freedom -- but in that area of communication which becomes so crucial when a team appears to have lost its way.
The 24-year-old England striker was incensed by United's disarray in midfield and he did not disguise his feelings. His gestures towards Nani and Darren Fletcher spoke more of rage than disappointment and afterwards he admitted: "I was very frustrated in the first half with a lot of things.
"Some people were not doing their jobs and I let my feelings be known. We learned from that and won the game. I felt we were the better team."
The better team, perhaps, but certainly one with several extremely chastened members.
For a delighted Alex Ferguson, it was the confirmation of his best hopes that Rooney could not only fill the scoring vacuum left by Cristiano Ronaldo's departure at the end of last season, but also some of the leadership that vanished at Old Trafford when Keane departed, trailing his anger at a culture of complacency which he had fought so hard, and controversially, to contain.
Ferguson gave Keane all the licence he needed to enforce his professional values at the club. Now, it seems that Rooney may be moving into that category of leadership.
His value to United in the wake of Ronaldo is becoming almost inestimable and is surely linked to the departure of the Portuguese. When Ronaldo reigned at Old Trafford, and displayed a vision beyond his own potential impact that at best could only be described as slight, there was an increasing sense that Rooney's importance and development was, if not dwindling, then certainly dormant.
In the Champions League final in Rome last spring, he became almost peripheral, wide and inconsequential and lacking that hard, insistent streak which made him such a prodigious teenager -- and persuaded Arsene Wenger that he was the best young English player he had seen.
What has come now to Rooney is something that Keane chose for himself: the role of the true enforcer, the man who sets the tone of a team performance both by example and sheer force of will.
Charlton still marvels at Keane's performance in Turin in 1999, one that turned around the semi-final game and set up United for the final victory in Barcelona against Bayern Munich, one that had to be delivered in the absence of the suspended captain.
"No one could have imagined that one player could have such an effect. Roy Keane had always carried much influence in the team, but here was something quite exceptional," Charlton said.
"It is asking a lot for any young player to follow in such footsteps, but I've always thought that Wayne had natural leadership instincts. He is so passionate about the game and he so hates to lose."
In Keane's case, that obsession with the need to win spilled over with negative effects on occasions, not least when his light was dying at Old Trafford and he vented his anger on those players around him who he believed had been drawn disastrously into a culture of celebrity and unprecedented wealth.
Keane railed against the attention paid to cars and other luxuries.
Rooney's own willingness to spend money on a sumptuous lifestyle has never been much in question, not at least since his marriage to his childhood sweetheart -- but it has never come at any cost to the belief that the centre of his universe would always be located on a football field.