Rooney must start to play for huge pay
Manchester Utd 2 Wigan Athletic 0
In the movie 'Broadway Danny Rose', Woody Allen is recruited by a gangster to act as his moll's partner in public so that the wife doesn't suspect a relationship.
Something to hide behind in uncomfortable social situations, it is a role, the hapless Allen is told, known as 'the beard.'
Over his two decades at Old Trafford, Paul Scholes has been called many things, the ginger genius principal among them.
Never before, however, has the resolutely clean-shaven midfielder been described as a 'beard.' But that is exactly what he was, when, 55 minutes into Manchester United's encounter with Wigan, he came on to the pitch as substitute alongside Wayne Rooney, who was marking his first game back since his Machiavellian contract negotiations.
As the pair stepped on to the pitch, it was the cue for vigorous applause, cheers, most of the crowd standing in ovation. The fact, as the chant emanating from the Stretford End immediately made clear, the reception was pointedly for 'the beard' was irrelevant.
That master impresario Alex Ferguson had brilliantly stage-managed the return of his tarnished property, deflecting any negativity by sending him out at the same time as a man who long ago won the unequivocal respect of United followers.
It was a wise decision. Rooney's subsequent performance drew restrained applause, seasoned with the odd boo, of a kind no one could spin as anything other than lukewarm.
But maybe that was appropriate. Lukewarm is, after all, the predominant temperature at Old Trafford these days.
The atmosphere is tepid, the performances under-cooked; only rarely since March has the place boiled with excitement. Yet somehow, despite fielding his least impressive line-up in a generation, Ferguson finds his team sharing the top of the table. With Chelsea and Arsenal doing their best to self-destruct, United's underwhelming efficiency has put them in contention.
Saturday was a case in point. Wigan, statistically United's patsy, arrived intent on being what Ferguson described as "very aggressive."
For 45 minutes, Wigan midfielders Mohammed Diame and Hendry Thomas snapped and snarled, discomforting United's Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, restricting them to passes best described as optimistic. But United didn't stop trying.
And in stoppage time, as the crowd digested news of Chelsea falling behind to Birmingham, Ji-sung Park delivered the game's first incisive ball, a delicious cross for Patrice Evra to head home.
If any United fan expected this to presage a deluge, they reckoned without Wigan's obduracy. If anything, the aggression was upped after half-time. So much so that within the space of five minutes on the hour, both Hugo Rodallega and Wigan captain Antolin Alcaraz had been dismissed.
The visitors' manager Roberto Martinez said he would not comment on the referee's performance. But not even Tony Pulis could have diagnosed big-club bias in Martin Atkinson's decision. Replays suggested he had no alternative. What an opportunity then presented itself to the returning prodigal. Half an hour against nine men: here was the chance to sprinkle some stardust on to the prosaic proceedings.
But Rooney largely disappointed. Perhaps understandably, he was tentative, preferring to lay the ball off short than run with it.
Worse, as spaces began to open behind tiring Wigan lines, he failed to locate the gaps in telling areas he once did. He made runs, but they were not decisive. On the one occasion the stubborn Wigan defence left him alone, he managed to fall over his colleague Rafael in the rushed effort to shoot.
By contrast, Javier Hernandez found himself so alone he must have been in danger of agoraphobia when he met Rafael's stabbed cross with a diving header to score United's second.
Ferguson was keen afterwards to point out it was just a start, the run-out Rooney needed. He will get a full 90 minutes against Rangers on Wednesday. It will only be after that that we can begin to judge whether he has been forgiven by those who used to chant endlessly about him being the white Pele.
Patience, though, is not in abundance. The consensus among those leaving the ground was that now he is being paid as if he is something special, he needs to show it.
If he can add the finish to a side in need of spark, if he can steer United clear of the pack, if he can bring the crowd regularly to the edge of its seat, only then all will be forgotten.
And the fans' opinion counts; after all, it is their devotion that is paying his bloated wages. (© Daily Telegraph, London)