Rooney leads from front as Manchester duo lay down title gauntlet
It has been a long year. Long enough to restore a head of hair and a reputation. Long enough to break a record, to make history. Long enough to rebuild a bond that looked broken. Long enough for everything to change.
For Wayne Rooney, it has been the longest of years.
One year ago. Manchester United's team bus drew up on Goodison Road.
One by one, Alex Ferguson and his team disembarked, until there was nobody left. A palpable disappointment from those who had come to barrack their prodigal son: no Rooney.
Excused duty by his manager as allegations swirled over his private life; Rooney it seemed, teetered on the brink.
One year on. Manchester United's team bus draws up outside the Reebok Stadium. Rooney is there, his hair thicker through surgery but his confidence boosted entirely through achievement.
His last outing in club colours brought a hat-trick, he has scored every time he has taken to the field this season and, in little more than three hours, he will have notched the three goals which make him a more prolific attack on his own than 18 of 20 Premier League teams. One year on, everything has changed.
It is not hard to see why. Away from the pitch, Rooney's domestic serenity was illustrated perfectly by his wife, Coleen, taking to Twitter this week to defend her husband from the barbs of a tabloid columnist.
On it, he has rarely seemed happier, a record-breaking 19th league title enough to obliterate the memory of that fevered October week when he seemed set to walk out on Old Trafford for good, to earn him the adoration of the Stretford End once more.
"Last season he had some problems, but now he is back," said United left-back Patrice Evra.
"He is in a different way. He wants to show what a top player he is. Of course he wants to put last year behind him. Everyone thinks if they have a problem, the first thing they want to do is play football and enjoy themselves.
"That is what he has done.
"He wants to be the best player in the world, and he just has to keep doing what he is doing. After training, he does some finishing.
"This is something he did not do a long time ago. He is joking in the dressing room, saying that if he scores another three goals he will have the same number as last year. It is only four games in. You can see his hunger."
The numbers tell the story.
The 25-year-old's hat-trick at the Reebok was his seventh for United, drawing him level with Bobby Charlton.
He is only the fourth player to score hat-tricks in successive Premier League games. Together with the two scored by Javier Hernandez, it took United to a grand total of 18 in four Premier League games, the best start to a season by any top-flight side since 1947.
Rooney said he was "delighted" with his latest hat-trick and added: "For both me and (Javier) to score on our first start together this season is great.
"I had a long time to rest and got a good pre-season under my belt.
"I have stayed clear of injuries and that's helped."
And United were given another boost last night with the news that midfielder Tom Cleverley had not broken a foot but he is still expected to be out for four weeks.
That, in turn, has helped United cast Manchester City's opening salvos to the new campaign into the shade.
Hernandez clipped home his first, from Nani's low centre, after just five minutes. City's players, fresh from their 3-0 win over Wigan, would still have been packing their designer washbags at the Etihad Stadium.
It is easy to imagine sky blue shoulders crumpling in disappointment.
When Rooney made it two, tapping in a deep cross from the impressive Phil Jones, all hope would have been expelled. The third, the England international driving home a rebound after Jones had galloped 50 yards forward, secured the points.
Bolton manager Owen Coyle, surprisingly chipper for a man who had seen his team eviscerated, insisted both Manchester sides "have great squads", both "have an unbelievable chance of the title".
The Premier League remains in United's iron grip though, and will not be relinquished easily.
That for those who wish to dethrone them, the longest of years is ahead. (© Daily Telegraph, London)