Wayne Rooney: 'I feel good. I'm more relaxed and looking forward to every game'

He may be back in 'a happy place' but the United striker has endured a hair-raising ride since early 2010, he tells Sam Wallace

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Not for the first time in his career, Wayne Rooney was invited yesterday to look back on the last 18 months and wonder at a life that seems to be permanently on fast-forward.

Since March 2010 he has gone from being among the most in-form strikers on the planet, to an angry, isolated young man berating the England fans in Cape Town after his team's 0-0 draw with Algeria at last summer's World Cup finals. He has gone from a public attack on Manchester United's transfer policy last October, to being the leader of a new generation at the club. And having been virtually bald at 25, he is now sporting splendid new growth on the most famous scalp in English football.

A quick check of the diary confirmed that Rooney has not volunteered for a set-piece press conference on England duty since 16 June 2010, two days before that Algeria game and to say much has happened in the interim would be an understatement. This is the way Rooney's life works: a story told in tabloid front and back pages with barely a pause for breath between triumph and catastrophe.

But yesterday you needed only to look at the spring in his step, and the occasional joke at the expense of the press corps – "looks like a few of you could do with the same," he said when asked about his hair transplant – to know that Rooney is, as he said himself, in a "happier place". Just in time for Fabio Capello whose team play Bulgaria on Friday and Wales on Tuesday in Euro 2012 qualifiers they have to win.

Not a man given to great introspection, Rooney did, however, have a simple answer for his rejuvenation. Quite simply, over the summer he took five weeks off and did nothing. Even the training plan given to him by the United fitness coach was left at home with the family pets and the note to the milkman when he packed up for his holidays.

"I just wanted to do nothing and get that rest which I haven't had for a while," he said. "So I made a decision to do no training whatsoever and start pre-season and work hard from there. I certainly feel that has benefited me. Because I am the type of person who, if I do no training, I can easily put a lot of weight on I had to watch what I was eating. But it was fine and I enjoyed my time with my family."

Surely a run along the beach by his holiday home in Barbados to keep in trim? "No. I honestly didn't lift any weights or run. Nothing. The fitness coach gave me a programme to follow but I left it behind. I was a couple of kilos over [when he came back] but it's easy enough with the work you do in pre-season."

It seems to be working. He has sparkled so far this season, most notably with his hat-trick against Arsenal on Sunday – "I still should have scored that chip [which hit the post]" – but really his form had been returning before the end of last season. After the injury against Bayern Munich at the end of March 2010, the fruitless slog through the World Cup last summer and the rancorous start to last season with United, Rooney could pinpoint the moment he felt back in the groove.

It was not that remarkable overhead kick against Manchester City in February, but earlier. "On New Year's Day I was quite happy to put 2010 behind me and I was looking forward to starting the New Year and doing well," he said. "I scored my first goal from open play [against West Bromwich Albion] in a while [since March 2010]. From then I was happy and I was confident I could help the team."

The slump before then had been dramatic and even Rooney was prepared to admit that the manner in which his form fell away after he returned from that injury sustained in the Champions League surprised him. "I saw people on TV or in newspapers questioning me. In a way it helped me because you want to prove to them that they were wrong and you can get back to your best. In some ways it makes you more angry and willing to get back to doing it.

"It's hard when you know you can do things but you are trying it and it is not working. It is hard to come to terms with that. Thankfully I managed to get over it and play some of the best football I have played in a long time.

"I feel good. I think there have been times when I have been more aggressive on the pitch and gone in for silly challenges. But I'm not really doing that anymore and I'm feeling more relaxed on the pitch. Sometimes it happens and it's hard to control but if you stay more controlled, your performances will certainly be better."

Rooney joked on Twitter this week that he would have to "baby-sit" the new United generation of Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in this week's England squad – of which Danny Welbeck would also have been a part were it not for injury – although it is a team that he would not have been a part of had he carried out his threat last year not to sign a new contract at United.

"Of course, I'm thankful that I stayed and signed. I said at the time, after I signed my contract, that I had made a mistake [in publically questioning the club]. I owed performances and goals to the fans for what happened. For me it's the best decision I've made in my football career. To still be enjoying it and winning things.

"The average age of the team recently was 23 and that is great for the future for us and hopefully we can bring more success. What I did [in October] was wrong. I am [happier]. I am enjoying it and I am in a happy place both on and off the pitch. I am looking forward to every game that comes."

With Rooney, of course, you never know what is round the corner. But he seems convinced when he says that United and England have a good generation coming through. "I think everyone should be excited. Not just about the United players. Danny Sturridge is doing well at Chelsea; Jack Wilshere. There are a lot of young players coming into the England team. Maybe something we haven't had before. Certainly over the last 10 years."

Rooney's rollercoaster: 18 months in the life of United's spearhead

30 March 2010 Suffers ankle ligament damage against Bayern Munich, as United crash out of the Champions League.

25 April Voted PFA Players and Football Writers' player of the year, after scoring 34 goals in all competitions.

18 June Criticised for a verbal attack on England fans after they booed the team off following a 0-0 draw with Algeria during the World Cup. Rooney fails to score in four matches.

20 October Announces he wants to leave Manchester United. However, in a dramatic U-turn two days later, Rooney signs a new five-year contract.

12 February 2011 Sir Alex Ferguson describes Rooney's spectacular overhead winner in the Manchester derby as the "best I've ever seen".

2 April Banned for two matches after using "offensive language" after he bellows into a camera while celebrating a hat-trick against West Ham.

14 May Helps Manchester United to secure a record 19th league title, with a late penalty against Blackburn Rovers.

4 June Confirms that he has undergone a successful hair transplant.

28 August Becomes United's all-time leading scorer in the Premier League, with a hat-trick against Arsenal.

Michael Lynch

Bent misses training

Darren Bent was missing from England's first training session ahead of their Euro 2012 qualifying double-header against Bulgaria and Wales. The Aston Villa striker is an injury doubt for the Bulgaria game. Ashley Young is certain to start the match on Friday.