Something very peculiar appears to have happened to Wayne Rooney. You may have noticed it during Manchester United’s defeat at the Etihad, then again when England beat Slovenia at Wembley, only for the strange phenomenon to be repeated on Tuesday night, as England were victorious once again, against Scotland. In all three encounters, Rooney ran at the opposition.
Not only that, but these runs were actually successful. It was an odd sensation, watching this occur. A sense of déjà vu crept upon us as distant memories stirred within our souls.
The first of these runs, against Manchester City, left us gaping in disbelief. It had been such a long time since we had witnessed this that many of us had stopped believing that it was even possible. By the time he did it for a third time, however, we were getting excited.
The thing is, it’s not just the fact that Rooney is suddenly willing to take on his man again. He’s also scoring goals, looking fit and energetic, and, perhaps most crucially of all, playing with a smile on his face.
Rooney is an extremely divisive figure amongst United fans. Contrary to what many would have you believe, this is not simply due to his infamous transfer-requests. True, many fans will never forgive him for what they see as plain and simple treachery. Yet for many others, myself included, what has been far more frustrating is his form over the last couple of years, and the fact that, despite this, he has seemed undroppable.
I was angry when Rooney asked to leave United. Both times. I felt hurt and betrayed and vowed never to chant his name again. That anger, for a long time, increased and festered, as I watched what I truly felt was Rooney’s decline. I recoiled in horror upon hearing that he had signed a new contract that made him the best paid player at the club and one of Europe’s top earners. I felt that he had held the club to ransom, set a terrible example to younger players just starting out on their careers and, besides, he wasn’t even that good anymore.
His first touch seemed to have deserted him, his passing was inconsistent, he spent too much time and energy tracking back, his pace had dwindled and he often looked out of shape. The Rooney that used to terrorise opposition defences had been replaced with a brooding figure of frustration.
Which is why seeing him charging through opposition lines in recent weeks has been so thrilling. It is a reminder of what Rooney is capable of; a reminder of what made us fall in love with him all those years ago, before all the scandal and mistrust. It is only a few games, a few runs, so it would be foolish to get carried away. Still, I come back to that crucial point: the fact that Rooney suddenly looks happy again.
Think back over the last few years. Rooney’s relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson was often fraught. When the Scot bought Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, Rooney must have felt extremely insecure. Ferguson was highly critical of him during his final campaign, publicly questioning his fitness and dropping him for critical games. Then came Ferguson’s retirement and the second transfer saga. Rooney spent the summer feeling ‘angry and confused.’
Speculation was rife throughout that summer. The following season, the entire club was in a state of disarray. Many claim that Rooney was one of the better players during Moyes’ woeful tenure. That may be so, but it is hardly a ringing endorsement, given the overall standard on the pitch. I felt that people were blinded by his work-rate, his willingness to run about. That is a commendable quality in any player but it is not what the club pay him all those wages to do.
When Louis van Gaal handed Rooney the captaincy, eyebrows were raised. It felt, as with England, like he had got it by default, the scarcity of leaders playing into his hands. Since then, many have wondered whether the armband has become something of a burden. During this international break, however, he has suddenly appeared to be thriving off his new-found responsibility.
United fans like me may never feel that warmth we once did for Wayne Rooney – there’s just so much water under the bridge. Nevertheless, Rooney in full flight still has the power to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end, to get you off your seat.
Van Gaal is renowned for his man management, his ability to get the best out of players. He clearly trusts Rooney. Perhaps that trust, combined with a new style of coaching and training methods, is beginning to reap rewards. Rooney is suddenly playing with joy again and, if he continues to do that, he can bring a great deal of joy back to Old Trafford.