The Rooney riddle - all-time great who has underachieved
The deeper significance of Wayne Rooney's winning goal at Liverpool on Sunday will only become apparent at the end of the season.
Will it have been the turning point of Manchester United's unconvincing campaign, propelling them into a top-four, maybe even a title-winning, finish, as Louis van Gaal optimistically suggested at Anfield?
Or was it a blip in an inevitable stumble towards the even more inevitable departure of a manager who is struggling on but appears to be coming to the end of his tenure?
Time will tell (although there was little in United's overall performance to suggest this was that turning point) but, on a personal level, the goal - the first he had scored at Liverpool since 2005 - was significant for Rooney.
For all the criticism he has faced, the 30-year-old striker will become United's all-time record goalscorer, beating Bobby Charlton's mark of 249, if he keeps striking at his current rate. And he will do so this season. He is now bang on track to achieve that.
Five goals in four games have hugely skewed Rooney's average, but those goals have taken his United total this campaign to 11 in 26 matches, which equates to 0.42 per game. His overall total for the club is 242 goals - seven behind Charlton.
United have a minimum of 19 more matches to play - 16 league games, plus at least one FA Cup tie and two Europa League ties.
Eight goals in 19 matches is, neatly, also a rate of 0.42 per game. So, if he scores at this season's rate, he will overtake Charlton before the final whistle of United's last league game, at home against Bournemouth on May 15, and hit the 250 mark.
To beat Charlton's goalscoring records for England - Rooney surpassed his total of 49 goals in the autumn and now has 51 for his country - and for United in one season is a truly remarkable achievement and one obviously worthy of great recognition and significant praise.
But if he does so it will also lead to endless debate and evaluation of his worth in the history of the club and his status in English football. And it will not be in harmony. Can he be classified as a great? How can it be claimed he has not fulfilled his potential with such achievements?
The fact is that few players divide opinion as violently as Rooney. Few players who have achieved so much are accused of underachieving. But much of that criticism is justified.
The indisputable fact is that Rooney has had a brilliant career but is set to achieve those goalscoring landmarks in a season in which he has looked burnt out and off the pace at times and in a team who have largely been poor.
Rooney has been ineffective and out of touch for several matches in a row.
His form unconvincing up until recent games. Rooney scored only two Premier League goals before Christmas (and has only five now) and only six in the league in the last calendar year.
That, evidently, is not good enough and has led to understandable suggestions that he should be dropped. Even then, there is a debate to be had: who is to blame for Rooney's ineffectiveness? Is it the player or the system that Van Gaal uses him in? Or both.
Rooney remains United's main man because Van Gaal and the club have decided to invest in him. He remains England's captain also and will lead his country into Euro 2016 even if his status in Roy Hodgson's team is under far greater threat.
But there is that essential contradiction with Rooney. He will be United's leading goalscorer but he would not make a list of the top 10 players of all-time for the club's fans. It would be a similar scenario for England.
It is fascinating and fascinating partly because there is no easy answer because he polarises opinion so.
A personal view is that Rooney has underachieved on the incredible potential he showed when he burst on the scene and grabbed English football by the scruff of the neck; when he forced Roman Abramovich to pick up the phone, after his hat-trick on his Champions League debut, and call Chelsea executives to demand why his club had not bid for the teenager.
Yes, Rooney will gain the record for his club's all-time goalscorer just as he did for his country. Yes, it is a laudable, brilliant achievement. But there will remain that feeling that so talented is he, so precocious was he, that he could have done even more.
There is no simple answer. It might appear a harsh assessment but Rooney has suffered those throughout his career. Yet it is also a compliment to how brilliant he was and how talented he is. That is the fascination. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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