Sunday 19 November 2017

James Lawton: Even in the worst of times, Rooney's talent is undeniable

Wayne Rooney has scored 200 goals for Manchester United
Wayne Rooney has scored 200 goals for Manchester United
James Lawton

James Lawton

Having once sued Wayne Rooney, his Manchester United manager David Moyes now puts him in the witness box as 'exhibit A' in a case which would so recently have been laughed out of court.

Some might say the proposition, which is that the former malcontent of Old Trafford is now the heart and incipient legend of a new United, is still outlandish enough to provoke mockery before Sunday's trial against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

But then no-one ever said that Rooney's only talent was for self-destruction.

At City, they certainly know better than anyone that he can be most dangerous around about the time he is thought to be nearing his lowest point.

Their most chilling memories of him were surely provoked when he plundered his goals against Bayer Leverkusen this week in a Champions League performance which was greeted by Moyes, perhaps understandably enough, as not so much a promising step away from career crisis, but something close to a second, or was it a fourth or fifth coming?

The truth is that Rooney, in both the best and worst of times, cannot be separated entirely from a vein of extraordinary talent.

Twice a troubled performer, once described by Arsene Wenger as the best young English player he had ever seen, has erupted in City's faces.

Early in 2011, his extraordinary bicycle kick seemed to tear away their hearts in what had promised to be a most menacing title challenge.

And less than year later, after his manager Alex Ferguson had fined him £200,000 and yanked him off the field at Newcastle, he produced a devastating performance in an FA third round tie at City's ground.

Rooney kissed his United badge. Ferguson was less exultant, saying merely that Rooney was in danger of becoming a modern version of Paul Gascoigne, a player targeted by the media not for his talent, but his ability to draw the wrong kind of headlines.

It means now that if there is a sense of deja vu going into the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it is an exquisite one. For City, the obligation could hardly be more apparent.

They have to answer the Rooney threat, one either largely imagined or perhaps for real, with a little authority of their own. What we have is plainly not only a potentially formative moment in the latest title race, but something of a morality tale.

The moral hinges on the question of whether a player, even one as naturally talented as Rooney, can resurrect himself as anything more than an occasional performer of exceptional deeds, a dabbler in glory rather than a relentless pursuer of the highest standards of performance and a champion's consistency.

Two hundred goals, you might say, is a landmark of classic value, but then this is to ignore the reality of Robin van Persie's arrival at Old Trafford as Ferguson's confirmation that he had little optimism over Rooney's continued contribution to the cause – at least in any sustained and significant form.

CRUCIAL

Sunday is also a crucial battle of nerve between the new managers Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini. Both have had much to think, if not quaver, about in the early running.

United are clutching hold of their Champions League win as though it was a shaft of deliverance.

Pellegrini, phlegmatic in a care-worn sort of way, is also having to play up a good night in Europe, albeit against Czech non-entities, after the glow of a superb opening performance against Newcastle United dimmed swiftly.

For Pellegrini the greatest requirement is from players of the quality of Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero. Toure sent in a supreme free-kick, Aguero once again looked like a player of huge heart and the most formidable range of power and touch.

Aguero, maybe more than anyone on Sunday's field, has carried the promise of not only superior talent, but that kind of character which becomes not just a great strength of a team, but its core, its over-arching spirit.

Rooney, for all his protestations and his sulks, has never offered quite such a deep-running contribution. Supreme moments, of course, and always a sense that from somewhere amid his dissatisfaction he might well dig down for something unforgettable.

He did that with the bicycle kick. Nani sent in the cross and Rooney made it his personal property, he was alone in his stealing of the moment and after the ball had flashed into the net, and City's most accomplished defender Vincent Kompany had been made to feel like a bystander, he brandished himself before an adoring crowd.

It was a raw, atavistic flashpoint in a career which already seemed to be stumbling away from greatness.

Interestingly, Rooney recalled that moment vividly this week in the wake of his success against the German team.

He dressed it up as a defining statement, one of those seminal moments which perhaps might shape the rest of a career, perhaps even a life.

He seems eager to place his break-out against Bayer Leverkusen in a similar category and certainly appears to have forgiven his old mentor Moyes for the apparent slight of seeing him as, essentially, Van Persie's back-up.

Rooney speaks of the intensity of Moyes' training and responds to the manager's suggestion that Bobby Charlton's club record of 249 goals is now within reach.

The player declares: "To be edging closer is great for me. The most important thing for me was to get back playing and get among the goals. Charlton's record is amazing for how long it has stood."

Most remarkable of all, of course, was the consistency of spirit which imbued every step along the road.

Of course he inhabited a different age, a different value system and got his pay rises not by demand, but by the guilty conscience of a management, which said in so many words: "We really must give Bobby a rise."

Naturally, Moyes did not dwell on such perspective when he urged Rooney towards legend and the achievements of Jack Rowley, Denis Law and the nonpareil Charlton.

He was riding a moment not a tide of history, or, when you really faced up to it, anything more than the hope that Rooney will keep his mind on the job for at least a little while – and certainly for 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon.

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