Tuesday 12 December 2017

James Lawton: Jury's out on a return to form for Wayne Rooney

Manchester United striker still has a lot to do

Wayne Rooney gives the thumbs up after hitting a hat-trick in Brugge
Wayne Rooney gives the thumbs up after hitting a hat-trick in Brugge
James Lawton

James Lawton

One day in the not too distant future the analysts of great football performance will sit down and attempt to define the place of Wayne Rooney. It is only charitable to wish them the best of luck.

Their most formidable challenge is marrying the statistical weight of the achievements of a man who will shortly, all reasonable anticipation insists, sweep past the 49-goal mark of England's highest scorer Bobby Charlton, with the kind of consistency that has always marked the career patterns of the game's most notable players.

Such a task is much more a fine art than an exact science and anyone doubting this need only look beyond the surface of his latest triumph - the polished hat-trick which put Brugge to the sword in Champions League qualifying this week.

Rooney displayed the timing and judgment and touch which once persuaded Arsene Wenger that he was the finest young English player he had ever seen. But then it can't be forgotten he was playing against a mediocre and direly weakened Belgian team as he broke a 10-game scoreless run going back to last April.

This, however, did little to contain Rooney's own celebration - or the stamp of approval from the usually ultra-demanding Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.

Read more: Arsene Wenger on Gary Neville: 'He should back his opinion up with facts'

Wayne Rooney slots the ball into the net to complete a fairytale return to form in Brugge
Wayne Rooney slots the ball into the net to complete a fairytale return to form in Brugge

Read more: Kevin De Bruyne's 'astonishing' £55m deal to join Manchester City

Before flying home to his Cheshire mansion Rooney declared almost blithely, "If I didn't have a strong character it (the scoring drought) may have affected me but I know my strength. I wasn't worried. If it was going on for three, four, five more games, then maybe, but it is early days and I knew when the chances came I'd take them.

"Everybody goes back to last season and saying how many games I went without scoring but a lot of top-quality strikers have yet to get off the mark at this point. I understand because of my name and who I am that this becomes part of my job. I know a situation like that will get publicised a lot more. I understand it is something I have to deal with."

Van Gaal certainly treated Rooney's Belgian break-out as a mere re-statement of a superior will, and talent, saying: "It has given him always the confidence that a player needs. Wayne has a very strong mentality and with this level he shall always come back." But will he? There is certainly enough doubt about this to make it inconceivable that Van Gaal is anything like sanguine about the fact that he might have to go into the new season without some serious re-enforcement of Rooney, and the misfiring Javier Hernandez as United's only front-line strikers.

The possibility of injury alone would make such a situation bizarre even if United weren't facing the test of re-immersion in the highest levels of European football. Hence the relentless belief that having missed out on Pedro or, as they claim, ceded the signing to Chelsea, United are poised to make a blockbusting move with perhaps disaffected goalkeeper David de Gea subsidising a move for Gareth Bale - or a mighty, if ultimately, futile lunge for Neymar.

Whatever the outcome of such speculation, a certain reality almost goes without saying. Rooney, given all his goals but also his sometimes large streaks of inconsistency, is currently a highly questionable recipient of such huge responsibility. Yes, he has the goals, and some utterly remarkable ones, but if it should happen that he surpasses his United predecessor Charlton's England scoring record on precisely the same number of games (106) it will be hard to ignore the old saying that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Wayne Rooney, right, Luke Shaw, centre, and Memphis Depay leave the pitch at the end of the Champions League play-off round
Wayne Rooney, right, Luke Shaw, centre, and Memphis Depay leave the pitch at the end of the Champions League play-off round

Rooney's talent, his lovely skill and his so often superior understanding of space and time, is certainly not a myth but then does his body of work really begin to compare over the long haul of a football life and, still more, display the kind of competitive integrity and pride that was the mark of so much of Charlton's career?

Rooney can hardly set the landmarks of his best achievement but if it should happen that he goes past Charlton in his 106th international it will surely be noted by his more rigorous critics that his opposition on September 5 will be supplied by San Marino. When Charlton played his 106th, and final, game for England, it was a World Cup quarter-final against West Germany in the drenching heat of Leon, Mexico, in 1970.

Charlton did much to shape the game in England's favour before his manager, Alf Ramsey, decided to withdraw him after 69 minutes in order to keep him fresh for a semi-final against Italy. The Germans equalised and won in extra-time.

None of Rooney's World Cup England managers have been obliged to carry such a burden and least of all his first great champion, Sven Goran-Eriksson, who saw the last of his chances in the 2006 World Cup in Germany dissolve when Rooney drew a red card for stamping on the crotch of Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho.

Now, though, the red cards, the eruptions, the crisis of will, the long lean patches, are swiftly put to one side as Rooney and Van Gaal join to celebrate a player of heightened ambition.

It is why there has to be a degree of scepticism over the meaning of Brugge - and a still critical gaze when Wayne Rooney returns to work against Swansea on Sunday.

Irish Independent

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