Rooney unable to keep carrying the unwilling
Dion Fanning was at Goodison to see United's talisman buckle under the burden of his club
Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00
Sometimes you should never go back. Wayne Rooney arrived at Goodison Park as the best player in the world right now but left, after 90 minutes of anonymity, reminded that he will never have it easy at the ground which was once his home.
Rooney first came to attention on occasions like Everton's defeat of Manchester United yesterday. On a grim October day in 2002, Rooney, then 16, ended an Arsenal unbeaten run and announced himself to a football world that knew he was coming.
Now Rooney can dominate in any ground in the world. Last Tuesday night it was the San Siro, but that was just another notch. Rooney will command attention at the Emirates and he will be driven by the hatred at Anfield, but it is at Goodison Park that Rooney likes to demonstrate what he can become.
Yesterday he returned again to a place that played a crucial role in his development. Everton helped mould Rooney and once he left, he was shaped further by the enmity that remained, an enmity on show again yesterday.
In order to make the break with the place that made him, it seemed Rooney needed to find something to despise. He taunted the crowd when he returned as if to stop and reflect would reveal a dangerous wound. It was better to summon the only emotion that can ever compete with love.
Yesterday he was ignored, which would have frustrated him even more. He was not a threat and, without him, neither were United, despite taking the lead. Everton demonstrated the qualities that welded Rooney to the club as a boy and that, even now, makes Goodison Park one of the great stadiums in England to watch a game of football in.
Rooney could have come from nowhere but a city like Liverpool. He could only have been formed in a place where football matters, where it is synonymous with love. Milton Keynes could never produce a player like Wayne Rooney.
Even the password for the wireless connection at Goodison honours Dixie Dean and it was an environment Rooney cherished until it was time to do what was best for him. At that stage he had to find some other grounds, mainly spurious, for his departure above merely acting in his best interest. He is Manchester United's leader now, just as Roy Keane once was because of his ability not to engage with sentimentality. The past is only useful as a driving force.
Things have got a bit better at Everton recently. On Friday David Moyes, who sued Rooney over things that had appeared in the player's autobiography, praised the player and revealed that he had received a phone call and apology from Rooney last year; a sign, Moyes said, of Rooney's growing maturity as a player.
Moyes used his line once more that Rooney was the last of the street footballers, but even when the streets were full of games of football they didn't produce many like Rooney. Moyes' words highlight the genius of Rooney. They can talk of academies and they can enrol Rooney in them as a boy, but something else creates a genius.
Rooney once turned up for a trial at Liverpool wearing an Everton top but when the time came to leave, he didn't hesitate, joining a club that he seems to belong to even more. He is in the greatest tradition of players Ferguson has brought to Manchester United. He has something of Eric Cantona as well as Keane but as a player he is better than both of them.
Again the choices that are always facing a club like United were clear on Tuesday night. While Alex Ferguson is in charge, they will always make the right decisions. There was a time when David Beckham may have been valued for his commercial appeal but Ferguson discarded him.
In the San Siro, Beckham was made to look exactly what he is: a businessman trying to compete with sportsmen. He was a member of the corporate world allowed access to a sporting event due to their financial contributions. This was football's equivalent of the pro-am. Beckham was rewarded with a place in the team but when things got serious, he was brushed aside and then replaced.
Last summer, Ferguson had no option but to sell Cristiano Ronaldo. For years, Rooney had sacrificed himself for United. Last week Ferguson admitted they had not been playing Rooney in his best position last season. He could have gone back further. Rooney has been released from the responsibility of doing two men's work and, consequently, is as effective as three. Yesterday with Dimitar Berbatov in the side instead of Paul Scholes, he was again asked to carry the unwilling.
He may have moved beyond it now. Yesterday, Rooney's touch was heavy and when he was given the opportunity to do what he craved and destroy Everton, he let the ball run away from him or he was closed down by the lumbering, suffocating presence of Sylvain Distin who was immense yesterday, indeed every day, given his increasing size.
In Milan, Rooney gave some indication that he may not be prepared to carry people forever. Having glimpsed a post-Ronaldo world when each player does his duty, he didn't seem inclined to allow a philosophy of slacking to return. Berbatov is the only slacker remaining but United are also now a team of honest pros and not much more. Everton had the more skilful players yesterday. For United, everything now depends on Rooney.
He represents the finest traditions of Manchester United and the finest traditions of English football.
Sometimes it doesn't seem if United always do anymore. Rooney will almost certainly extend his contract in the summer but all United have to do is study his willingness to leave Everton to realise they cannot assume he is United's for life. The retirement of Ferguson and the steady management of decline by the Glazers may force Rooney to look elsewhere at some stage in his career.
He has avoided many of the perils of the game, at least in later years. His talent was such that he was coveted by agents as a teenager and his appetites seem to have been sated since those early lurid headlines.
Yet few doubted what he could become. During the Ronaldo years, he was overlooked by those of whom it can be said they were not paying attention. His goals this season have demanded the spotlight but it was Ferguson and United who were not getting the best from him when they asked him to carry a player.
Yesterday he looked like he was carrying a team or, more precisely, yesterday was one of the few days when he looked incapable of carrying a team. He could have given away a penalty and only towards the end did the Everton fans decide to give him their full attention.
They were running a competition in the Everton programme yesterday: "Bring an exiled Evertonian home." One exile came home yesterday but they didn't treat him like a competition winner. "Rooney, what's the score?" they chanted after another Everton product, Jack Rodwell, had wrapped up the game. Rodwell may one day follow Rooney to Old Trafford but he will not be going where Rooney is going.