Exactly a decade ago, a teenage Wayne Rooney was making his preparations for a season which would, by its conclusion, forge his reputation as one of the game’s great talents. A striker of glittering promise in the summer of 2003, within 10 months he had become a finished product, a world beater.
Four goals as an 18-year-old at Euro 2004 would seduce Sven-Goran Eriksson – who at the time still cultivated a reputation as a football authority rather than a global mercenary – and lead the Swede to compare Rooney’s remarkable impact with England to that of Pele at the 1958 World Cup. Dazzled by his brilliant talent, that comparison looked saner then than it does in retrospect.
Because during those heady summer days, brought to an abrupt halt when Jorge Andrade trod on Rooney’s foot and broke his metatarsal, anything seemed possible for the boy Eriksson was already describing as a "complete footballer". Now, 10 years on, when he should be at the very peak of his powers and delivering on that promise, the Manchester United striker finds himself at a crossroads in his career.
His relationship with English football’s greatest club appears ruptured; 52 goals and possibly two seasons away from matching Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record and achieving immortality – the kind of status he promised to attain 10 long years ago – Rooney finds himself in a quandary of his own making that could arrest his development. Certainly something is not quite right at Carrington.
As much as United protest his fitness problems during pre-season were just that, the sight of Rooney strolling out onto the Wembley turf to start against Scotland when just three days earlier he was deemed too unfit to play any part in the Community Shield seemed rather incongruous. When he also appeared for the second half and then stayed on until the 66-minute mark to finally be replaced by Rickie Lambert, United’s stance was further undermined.
A clue was provided by Roy Hodgson in the week when he said Rooney showed “no physical injury” during a training session with England. A damaged psyche might be an alternative diagnosis to a troublesome shoulder. Perhaps some bruised pride or a strained ego after a summer which has seen him cast in the role of outsider.
Rooney must be hurting after Robin van Persie supplanted him as United’s leading attacker and Sir Alex Ferguson threw him under an open-top bus when telling the world, via Geoff Shreeves, after his final home game in charge that the striker had asked to leave the club for the second time. No closer to a resolution, in public at least, his future remains very much in doubt.
So was this match versus Scotland the ‘shop window’ of cliché legend for Rooney? Not if the Guardian are to be believed, with a well-sourced report claiming United have made it unmistakably clear to Chelsea they will not consider selling Rooney at all this summer. To so strengthen a title rival would be puzzling; a temperamental talent like Juan Sebastian Veron can make the trip from Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge, but not a player of Rooney’s proven quality in the Premier League.
Rooney lacked the necessary sharpness to wildly impress watching suitors in any case - hardly surprising when his pre-season has been limited to 45 minutes in a behind-the-scenes friendly against Real Betis. Performing as the lone striker ahead of Tom Cleverley, Rooney linked up well at times and produced some nice touches, but lacked the sparkle he showed so often in an England shirt last season when scoring seven goals in seven games for the national side.
Still, Hodgson was happy enough as he paid tribute to the striker’s workrate in what was a hard-fought friendly between two old foes.
“It has been well documented it is his first competitive game of the year and under normal circumstances you wouldn’t expect his first competitive game to be versus Scotland in front of 80,000 people at Wembley,” said the England manager. “David Moyes and Manchester United have been fantastic. They have welcomed the fact that he wanted to play and that we played him. He got 60 fantastic minutes. He of course wanted to stay on and we took the chance to give him an extra 15 minutes. It seems to have gone well, and he's fit and raring to go now when he joins his club.”
It was a good party line that was echoed by ITV’s star pundit for the night – a certain Manchester United manager.
If the window does shut with Rooney still a Moyes player then he may have to undergo a period of Kevin Pietersen-esque reintegration. His manager made it rather clear in pre-season that he is considered a secondary talent to Van Persie – a player whose name was chanted here by Scotland fans looking to goad Rooney – and there is surely a chance his season will begin with a seat on the bench.
It is not a prospect that will please Hodgson, who must be concerned that the summer’s machinations will have a deleterious impact on his best player. Approaching the World Cup, should England qualify, Hodgson will want all of his senior players to be club regulars, yet Rooney risks being marooned as a second-choice striker at a club he wants to leave. The United forward, more than most players, needs regular conditioning; being a sub doesn’t suit him or England.
At the moment the national team must seem like a sanctuary for Rooney. There are no Dutch superstars competing for his place: just Jermain Defoe and Lambert, who hit a post late on when he should have had a second. With England, Rooney enjoys the status he craves. Not quite the white Pele, but still his country’s finest player. The fear is that what could be a stormy campaign ahead at United may yet jeopardise another defining season in his career.
Tom Adams at Wembley