Snarling Rooney spells torrid time ahead for United
Wayne Rooney looked many things as he tore around Old Trafford on Tuesday night. He looked lean, he looked athletic, he looked focused. He looked, as he addressed every free-kick, hungry to accumulate goals. But, particularly when he fulfilled his post-match media duties, there was one thing he did not look. And that was happy.
Gabriel Clarke, ITV's man with the microphone, seeking to discover if the player's excellent autumnal form was the product of a refreshed sense of personal ease now that his summer of evident discontent was over, asked him that question: was he now happy? Rooney's scowl of a response provided eloquent answer.
"Listen, I've told you," he snarled at the watching nation. "I'm just concentrating on playing my football."
It was not exactly a Paxman-esque interrogation. Clarke was not trying to trip him up or wheedle from him classified information. It was a polite inquiry, offering the opportunity to give public reassurance of the player's commitment to his employers. The easy answer would have been to say yes, he was happy now that the speculation was over and he could give his all for his club. But Rooney did not say that – the real meaning lay in what was left unsaid.
None of us know what is going on inside Rooney's head. In truth, we do not even know what is going on outside his head – one minute it is too badly scarred to risk playing for England, the next, swathed in a bansai headband, it is being used to nod the ball into the path of Manchester United team-mates without the remotest sign of discomfort. But whatever it is that is perplexing him, the issue does not appear to have gone away.
From briefings over the summer given by his people, his anxiety to move away from Old Trafford appeared to have been fed by the breakdown of his relationship with Alex Ferguson. The former manager clearly did not trust him any longer. Whatever the reason, Rooney felt slighted by his lack of selection for important matches. Clearly, for a player who needs to feel central to the cause, the breach became unbridge-able. So bad, in fact, he needed to make a fresh start elsewhere. With a manager who understood him. Like Jose Mourinho.
But, unless Rooney has bought into the conspiracy theory that Ferguson is still pulling strings from his seat in the directors' box, the old manager has left the dugout. And, despite their previous frosty moments, the new boss made it clear from the start that he intended to build his side around the player. Better still, David Moyes has indicated that Rooney (below) will no longer be positioned all around the park, obliged to do shifts on the left wing or in the centre of midfield; he will be picked first, to play up front, in the space behind Robin van Persie.
So, what is eating him?
It is certainly not a lack of popularity. The United crowd, who many predicted would turn on him for his perceived disloyalty in seeking the exit, have been more than magnanimous in their response to him this season.
He seems to have everything, money, adulation, the chance to forge a partnership with the best forward in the league at the country's most storied sporting institution. Yet still, after a performance of grace and power, he looked as if Clarke was about to begin root canal work on him.
Rooney has been at United nine years now, but unlike his old colleague Cristiano Ronaldo, who has promised himself to Real Madrid for the rest of his career, he appears not to have fallen in love with the place. His evasiveness on Tuesday suggested he was still keen to find a fresh challenge elsewhere.
Where that might be is his problem. There is no way United's hierarchy would sanction a move in January or any other time to a rival in the Premier League.
One glance at Chelsea's striking problems would make it obvious that allowing him to join Mourinho would be like handing the Portuguese the keys to the title. But the trouble is, as the deafening silence over the summer proved, the list of foreign suitors is not exactly extensive.
Maybe that is what is making him unhappy – the very fact he cannot go to Chelsea has made the prospect all the more enthralling.
All of which means Moyes remains unsure where he stands with the player.
Asked by Clarke if Rooney was now settled, the manager said: "I don't know. I just know he's been great in training, he's worked really hard and he's scoring goals."
Indeed, maybe that is the lesson United fans should draw from the strange case of Wayne's mood – don't worry about the uncertainties of the future, just enjoy the present.
And all those goals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)