Rooney needs to silence his doubters
After travails of last 12 months, United star still waiting for career to reach former heights
A year ago today, Wayne Rooney was lifted on to a plane at Munich airport, his right foot encased in a protective boot and with more questions than answers about the Manchester United forward's ability to shoulder the hopes of club and country.
Twelve months on, the ankle injury has long since cleared, but after a turbulent year of controversy, injury and loss of form, the question remains the same.
Yet while Rooney's blistering form during the opening three months of 2010, when he scored 19 goals in 18 games, meant that back then nobody would even think of doubting his status as the pivotal player for both United and England as his country held its breath over the state of his ankle injury, the landscape has now changed.
The goals of Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov have compensated for Rooney's dry spell at Old Trafford, while the 25-year-old can no longer even be assured of his favoured central role for England.
Since straining ankle tendons against Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena on March 30, 2010, Rooney has endured a disastrous World Cup, suffered the ignominy of his personal life being played out in the media and burned bridges at Old Trafford by threatening to leave United.
On the pitch, he has scored just 10 goals for club and country, and the disciplinary demons that almost earned him a suspension for elbowing Wigan's James McCarthy last month have now led to a one-match ban that will see him miss England's Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland following a needless booking against Wales last Saturday.
So what next for Rooney? Have the last 12 months been a blip or are they a signpost of things to come?
Fellow 'boy wonders' Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler had already suffered the start of their decline prior to their 25th birthdays, with goal ratios almost halving for the pair of them once they reached Rooney's present age.
Some would suggest that Rooney has already peaked, following the metatarsals and strained ankles, and after his personal annus horribilis, he must now silence his doubters.
"I've been a Wayne Rooney fan all the way through," said former England great Peter Shilton. "I have always said that he is a little genius, but he hasn't been the Wayne Rooney we know for 18 months, for England at least.
"He could still be one of our great players, but he has to start performing and show that he is capable of getting back to what we know he can do. And he has to start playing for his place, because there is competition all round now."
The flashpoint against Wigan, when Rooney escaped punishment for his foul on Ireland star McCarthy, highlighted the petulance that has crept back into his game this season.
Some believe that to be down to frustration with his form and the lingering effects of the scandal relating to revelations that he used prostitutes, but Shilton insists there are no excuses for the hot-headedness on the pitch.
Shilton said: "The foul against Wales, when he got booked, was one of those things which there is no need for, and I don't see why he should still be doing those things. Doing those things doesn't help your overall game in terms of concentration. You have to be aggressive, but you have to be controlled."
Rooney himself has spoken regularly of his belief that he is approaching his best form once again.
High points such as his spectacular goal against Manchester City and his long-range strike against Chelsea have offered glimpses of his previous form, yet the jigsaw remains incomplete.
Former United forward Andrew Cole said: "Is he back to his best? The only person who can answer that question is Wayne. He would probably say, 'Yes I am back to my best', but centre-forwards always want to score goals.
"You want to play well and be a team player, but ultimately you want to score goals. I think he is getting there, though. I'm sure he will be all right."
United manager Alex Ferguson has publicly backed Rooney, insisting that the £30m forward is gradually rediscovering his optimum form.
With Mexican forward Hernandez recently being deployed ahead of Rooney as the focal point of United's attack, Ferguson has offered last season's double Footballer of the Year an opportunity to influence games from a slightly deeper role.
It is a challenge Rooney appears to be relishing, and Ferguson says he expects him to make a key impact in the closing weeks of the season, with United still pursuing a Treble.
Ferguson insisted: "He is doing great. He has that great desire and determination to do well. He has the energy to play at the very highest level, he has world-class moments and you see the maturity coming along.
"Normally this is our time in March and April, and Wayne is showing that at the moment."
By signing a new five-year contract at United last October at the end of an explosive week which almost led to his departure from Old Trafford, Rooney has signalled his commitment to the club.
He has backed that up by insisting there will be no pre-planned departure this summer, despite ongoing whispers that his United future is not quite so secure. But which player will United get for their money between now and Rooney's 30th birthday?
The one they want has only reared his head sporadically in 12 months, so United, England and Rooney will all be hoping that things can only get better. (© Daily Telegraph, London)