James Lawton: Regrets will follow Wayne Rooney as much as the plaudits
United star can only blame himself for his rapid decline
Wayne Rooney's decision to turn down the gold of China and stay at Manchester United no doubt involved a considerable degree of heart-searching.
But the meaning of it is still forlorn. He has, after all, done no more than reject the chance to become football's wealthiest displaced person.
That was the only reality on the table as his agent landed in China on a mission that seemed more than anything a gesture towards dwindling career strategy.
And as Jose Mourinho granted him the small distinction of a likely bench-warming place in United's squad for Sunday's League Cup final, the poignancy of Rooney's situation was still painfully acute.
It was that sadness which comes when a man of great talent - indeed the best of his generation - has plainly fallen short not only of his highest ambitions but a dream lodged in the minds of all who saw him emerge, first for Everton, then United and England.
As a teenager, he was more than a stunningly precocious contender for a place among the world's elite players - one winning early rave reviews from such notable judges as Arsene Wenger and John Giles.
He was the kid with a veteran's head filled with remarkable football intelligence and imagination.
Now, as Mourinho makes little secret of Rooney's slide down the Old Trafford totem pole and is plainly indifferent about how the last of his career plays out, all that youthful splendour might have happened in another lifetime.
That other existence was so thrilling, no-one could have imagined that he would, at 31 and while still captaining both United and England, be so widely seen as not so much damaged as time-expired goods.
Surely, he was too gifted for such a crushing dismissal. He saw dangerous space that others didn't. His skills were sumptuous. There were so many examples.
They included a stunning goal at Goodison Park against the Arsenal Invincibles, a hat-trick Champions League debut at Old Trafford, and a competitive arrival in the England team which overwhelmed Turkey - who less than a year earlier had finished third in the World Cup - and made team-mates heralded as a golden generation, including David Beckham, look like so many 50-dollar-a-day extras.
That masterly performance at the age of 17 gave England a major stride to the European Championship finals in Portugal, where Rooney announced world-class credentials before he was injured.
Of course, his career until these last few months was never a wasteland. But nor was it that which he promised so brilliantly and certainly not in subsequent England tournaments.
The extent of his current lack of fulfilment, and what appears to be bone-deep disappointment, is only underlined by the accumulation of honours and records that in another career would represent extraordinary triumphs.
The dressings of success have been extravagant enough to make his frustration now so profound.
Rooney surpassed Bobby Charlton's scoring records for United and England, he won a Manchester derby with a bicycle kick which had manager Alex Ferguson, not always his warmest admirer, reaching unsuccessfully for a comparison.
Instead, Ferguson declared: "It was stunning, unbelievable. We've had some fantastic goals here in terms of execution (think Best, Charlton and Law just for openers) but you'll never see anything like that."
What we are seeing now, after all those highpoints, is the sad remnant of a career which simply lost its way, at least on the level of untrammelled achievement.
What went wrong? What was it that has made Rooney such a disconsolate figure at what should be the prime of his footballing life?
Ferguson has recently suggested that Rooney's physical make-up is part of the story, comparing his rounder, heavier frame with that of the more naturally athletic, and much more enduring, Ryan Giggs.
But if this is indeed a factor, there are others which have much to do with Rooney's record of personal discipline which has so often been revealed to be flawed.
It is said that Rooney lives for football but it also true that he has done much of it with a dangerous carelessness.
He disenchanted Ferguson so severely after a miserable World Cup in South Africa and damaging stories of his private life that it was widely believed the manager was extremely tempted to move him on.
Some of that was to do with the belief that Ferguson, who had talked the United board into the record £26m purchase of a teenager, carried a sense of betrayal.
His feeling for Rooney's talent remained constant but his doubts about his commitment, and his ability to maintain optimum fitness, had deepened. What couldn't have been predicted then, though, was the speed of Rooney's descent.
When David Moyes took over at Old Trafford in 2013, there was much speculation that Chelsea, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain were all ready to make bids for Rooney.
Today, he can only fantasise about that range of options, although those who claim to know him best will tell you that he has little desire to move from his mansion in the Cheshire stockbroker belt.
invasion The captaincy of United, the invasion of Charlton's high ground for club and country, the £200,000-a-week contract and regular first team appearances is a package he would not willingly trade for the huge riches of the new Chinese football market.
Unfortunately, the vital ingredient of an automatic place amid the key United players has become a distant, haunting memory.
Who can he blame? The hard but unavoidable verdict is that it has to be mostly himself.
The recent pictures of him plainly drunk in the England team hotel was a shock to those who believed he was fighting hard to preserve his old place in the game - a place which once seemed so solidly guaranteed beyond his 31st year.
Rooney was indignant about the scale of the criticism that followed that incident; he didn't see it as another damaging statement about the consistency of his ambition to be the captain of both his club and his country.
For those who most believed in his ability it was still another grievous mis-step on a road that had promised so much - and never more so than when, after scoring two exquisite goals in a Cup-tie against Middlesbrough, the still teenaged Rooney gunned his new sports car into the post-game traffic and was followed by running, breathless young fans.
It is an image that has died hard down the years. Now, it is just one more reason for sadness and regret.