Wayne Rooney - from pariah to messiah
Published 30/09/2011 | 05:00
In the week dominated by Carlos Tevez's refusal to play for Manchester City, there was a rather stunning counterpoint just a few miles across town. Tevez wouldn't play for City, Rooney couldn't do it for Manchester United, and no-one needed telling who was missed most.
Tevez, of course, some time ago became City manager Roberto Mancini's figure of last resort, not a 'go-to' guy, more a case of 'has it really come to this?' This was no critique of the Argentinian's enduring ability to make an impact on any game, just public confirmation that he had become a lot more trouble than he was worth.
It seems quite extraordinary now, but less than a year ago Rooney was, in the minds of almost all but his manager Alex Ferguson, well down the road to the same pariah status.
No, he didn't turn his manager down at a critical point of a vital match, but he did deliver blows potentially devastating to the club's pursuit of its 19th English title.
He lectured Ferguson on a lack of ambition in the transfer market. He said United's ability to compete at the highest level was running down at an alarming rate. What would placate him? Soon enough it was apparent that a massive hike in wages would do very nicely, thank you.
Now, Rooney and Tevez scarcely occupy the same football planet. City's high-priced lawyers delve into the niceties of contract law to determine a proper response to Tevez's rebellion, while Ferguson and his football staff agonise over Rooney's current, but hopefully brief injury.
Ferguson complained that his team had "lost concentration" in Tuesday's embarrassing home Champions League draw with Swiss lightweights. He had made a similar point at the weekend after United surrendered two points against Stoke.
However, what Ferguson chose not to say -- but was certainly at the front of his mind -- is that for all United's early momentum, and sparking performances from such as Nani and Ashley Young, the team's dependence on Rooney is becoming greater by the match. Without him against Stoke and Basel, United were scarcely recognisable.
He is scoring goals with absolute assurance, timing his strikes as if with the assistance of radar.
His relationship with younger players like Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck has become almost paternal. Rooney is the man who finds a way to get the job done.
It started last season, though, some months after the firestorm caused by his rebellion, and accumulated momentum at a quite dramatic rate. Think of United's late-season flourish, their annexation of the title and curt dismissal of Chelsea on the way to the Champions League final.
True, Barca performed an ambush of chilling brilliance, but who was the one United player who kept to his task, scored a goal of great authority and who hadn't looked petrified from the first moments of the game? Of course, it was the erstwhile problem man-child Rooney.
Earlier, he had turned around a hugely important derby game against Manchester City with a goal of coruscating brilliance. At West Ham United, with the title race at a critical point, it was Rooney who masterminded a recovery from two goals down. He schemed and he scored and in an excess of triumphalism he yelled obscenities into a pitch-side microphone. That cost him a place in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, when an anguished Ferguson saw Dimitar Berbatov miss two glorious early chances.
Yes, you could say that by now Rooney had been forgiven for 2010 -- the most horrendous year of his life on an off the field. The stories of sordid behaviour in his private life, his catastrophic performances for England in South Africa during the World Cup and a relentless decline in his form for United, added up to a crisis which, for some, signalled the end of the best hopes for him when he emerged so sensationally as a teenager at Everton.
Arsene Wenger said then he was the best young English player he had seen, and by some distance, and the notably unexcitable John Giles agreed that here indeed was a player who had the potential to join the pantheon of great players.
So much for such huge expectations, the football cognoscenti agreed, and increasingly Ferguson was asked about the degree of Rooney's decline.
Was it a phase or might it just be terminal? Naturally, the manager opted for the former, but there were times when plainly he had his own doubts.
The problem was the scale of Rooney's playing woes. A year earlier he had been scoring goals with absolute authority, some on the ground, but a remarkable number in the air. It was as though nothing was beyond him.
Now almost everything was gone, and not least that sublime ability to be in the right place at the right time. The supreme home-bred reader of football was lapsing into illiteracy.
"Wayne is not having a great time at the moment, but the best of players have spells like this," Ferguson declared. "He is a great player and you do not lose that overnight. You better believe the best is yet to come."
Certainly Ferguson has plenty of reasons now to congratulate himself on his patience -- and maybe even cause to rewrite a little bit of recent history.
For many the club was craven when it backed down so quickly when Rooney and his agent arrived with their demands in the middle of one of the worst runs ever by a front-rank player.
Now it looks more a piece of sublime business when we look at United in the absence of Wayne Rooney.
For some time at least, they can also tremble at the possibility that one day he might say he doesn't want to play.