Mercurial Rooney's United path can still be paved with gold
England striker has a point to prove as he embarks on the next chapter of tumultuous Old Trafford career, writes Henry Winter
In a summer of noise, one of the most significant sounds was the Manchester United home fans singing Wayne Rooney's name against Chelsea and, even more momentously and surprisingly, the United away fans, the hard core, the keepers of the faith, backing him at the Liberty Stadium. Rooney had been looking to leave but they smothered him with love. Loudly.
The striker was clearly tempted by the thought of working with Jose Mourinho and experiencing a new challenge at Chelsea, and he had unfounded concerns about Alex Ferguson's influence, but the fans, the senior players, the management and executive at Old Trafford ultimately made it impossible for him to go.
United clearly took a policy decision back in May for all of their public figures from David Moyes to Ed Woodward to voice a consistent 'not for sale' line on Rooney, to keep public utterances simple so that mischief-makers could not look for any fissures in the club's rock-solid sentiment. Rooney realised he was not for sale, while the fans could see the club's commitment to him.
Ferguson had urged the fans to support his successor, so they went with Moyes's stance on Rooney, even if some were angered by the striker's eye for the exit. There was also an appreciation that Rooney was still one of the best players in the country, and the image of his leading Chelsea's attack was intolerable. Rooney responded by posting his thanks on Facebook for the "unbelievable reaction from the fans I really appreciate your support. It means a lot". Everyone wants to be loved, especially Rooney.
United's senior players also performed an important role, one by one stepping before the cameras and talking about Rooney along the lines "he's training well, he's a big player for us etc". Michael Carrick spoke well about Rooney after Swansea. Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic all made similar utterances. This was not an orchestrated campaign, not a rota of players repeating the same message. It happened more organically, players just telling it like it is, reminding supporters of Rooney's popularity and importance as a team-mate. It also refreshed Rooney's memory of the affection for him in the dressing room, of what he could be walking away from.
Understandably castigated for shortcomings elsewhere in the player-trading market, Woodward has always been adamant that Rooney would stay. United's new chief executive is like the new manager, having to follow a colossus.
David Gill's successor has actually handled the Rooney saga well. Woodward could never consider even starting the process of contract renewal with Rooney until the window closed. It would have looked a panicky response to Rooney's dalliance with Chelsea. Anyway Woodward should have been focusing on bringing players in. What this summer has also shown is the need for the transfer window to be shorter.
So Rooney stays and it is on with the show. He has some points to prove.
Every season is huge for Rooney but this one especially so. He will be under even more scrutiny than usual, for club let alone for an England side scrapping for a place at the World Cup finals. Few are better placed to judge Rooney's development over the past decade than Moyes, his guiding hand as the tyro stormed into the nation's consciousness at Everton and now his manager at United. "He's a great player," observed Moyes last week. "I think his career has gone the way everyone expected it to go."
But has it? Ferguson omitted Rooney from major games last season or used him wide. This was not how Rooney's career was 'expected' to go when arriving at United, when marking his debut with a hat-trick against Fenerbahce. Being benched or out of position was not in the 2004 brochure. Now 27, entering the prime-time when the athleticism of youth elides with decision-making faculties enhanced by experience, Rooney returns to his native Merseyside today, to Anfield, with some convincing still to do. Very good? Yes. Great? Not yet.
Those chronicling the start of his journey and the subsequent voyage 'expected' more. As a 16-year-old under Moyes, Rooney was phenomenal, lauded by even Arsene Wenger when his shot tore holes in Arsenal's defence and unbeaten 30-game record, becoming the then youngest scorer in Premier League history and soon England's youngest ever international.
New excitement accompanied ancient expectations with England. In one early training session under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Rooney scored such a spectacular goal that the players stopped, looked at each other and mouthed "what was that?" Some even applauded. He brought a buzz to England. His full debut against Turkey at Sunderland in April 2003 made all inside the Stadium of Light believe they were in the presence of something special, a shooting star surely embedded in the global galaxy for years to come.
One of his first-half runs obliterated the Turks; quick moving, strong physically, he passed, dribbled and tackled, looking an all-round force. A media rarely shy in heaping early expectations on the first glimmer of class proclaimed a man-child destined to end the years of hurt.
It all seemed so simple. Rooney seemed relaxed, taking each step up smoothly. Eriksson told Rooney he was starting against Turkey only four hours before kick-off. "OK,'' Rooney replied. Steven Gerrard, not one given to hyperbole, praised the range of the youngster's talents. "I have never seen a full debut before as good as that,'' said Gerrard. "He was so full of confidence. He's got good vision, he is big, he's strong, he can hold the ball up, he can change pace, he's clever for his age and he can score goals."
He had it all. His trajectory rising, Rooney then enjoyed his most memorable year for England, most prolific month, scoring six times in the space of 16 days in June, 2004. There were doubles in the friendly against Iceland at the City of Manchester Stadium and against Switzerland and Croatia at Euro 2004.
Since then broken bones, rushed returns, red cards and suspensions scarred some tournaments. "Don't kill him," Eriksson pleaded with the media after the 2006 World Cup, concerned about the expectations. Rooney fell out with England fans in South Africa. "Rooney only plays well in Manchester," sighed Fabio Capello some time after leaving England.
Rooney is frequently called enigmatic but mercurial would be more accurate.
For all the question marks, his stats are impressive. He has scored 36 goals for England, 14 short of breaking Bobby Charlton's record. He has scored 197 for United, chasing Charlton's landmark of 249. The numbers show him as a heavyweight force but he still has not fulfilled all that early potential. He is not in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. He sometimes looks short of conditioning.
But he has defied many doubts. His career has gone better than some early sceptics imagined. Some looked at Rooney's frame and wondered whether he could maintain that power. He has. Ask Ramires, dispossessed through a combination of desire, timing and strength at Old Trafford last week when Rooney gave that scintillating performance against Chelsea.
Some sought to peer into his character and wondered whether he would go the way of Gazza. Without straying too deeply into private territory it is patently clear that his wife Coleen, by all accounts a bright, grounded individual, is a vital, steadying force in his life.
The public scrutiny on Rooney is intense. One shudders to contemplate the front pages and phone-ins and political pontificating had any England footballers behaved as certain cricketers did in mistaking the Oval for Flushing Meadows.
Rooney is actually sane given the constant clamour that follows him around. There is more to come from Rooney. He has kept winning at United, kept scoring, and collecting medal after medal, but Rooney can do more.
He has abilities to be an even bigger noise.