James Lawton: Ferguson must prescribe a rest to restore flagging Rooney's affection for the game

What is worrying is the apparent collapse of his enjoyment of football
Click to follow

There so are many differences in nature and style between Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney, normally you would struggle to emphasise any one them. It was not so last weekend, however, when Henry scored a goal conceived and executed in heaven, and Rooney occupied what is looking increasingly like his version of football hell. Henry was perfectly in tune with his environment, Rooney couldn't have been more at odds with his, which is alarming when you think it was filled with team-mates who were playing perhaps as well as any group of professionals can at any one time.

What separated them most strikingly was that Henry was just emerging from a month's rest ordered, apparently against his wishes, by his boss, Arsène Wenger.

The Arsenal manager was at pains to say that his decision was provoked by Henry's lingering injury, though no doubt there were other issues, not least his own authority over a player of divine but complex qualities.

Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson is contemplating such a move with Rooney for other but most compelling reasons, most notably that the most naturally talented player in this country, and perhaps Europe, seems to be getting about as much enjoyment out of his football as he might a seminar devoted to nuclear physics. Truculent, frustrated, so undisciplined he might have compounded a miserable performance against Aston Villa with still another dismissal, Rooney could have brought additional gloom to a Welsh funeral.

For the moment Ferguson, however dismayed he is by a crisis of form which now, but for a brief eruption in November, is stretching into the second half of the season, is playing a patient game. But then with Louis Saha fit and thirsting for action, Henrik Larsson reminding us that he could probably conjure a workable one-two with a fir tree, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Giuseppe Rossi also eager for any chance they might get, the Old Trafford manager must be close to some initiative in an attempt to halt the Rooney slide.

It is not just a question of a lost edge. That is the inevitable passing fate of any striker, even someone like Henry. What is so worrying about Rooney is the apparent collapse of his enjoyment of football.

His work is laboured. The precious timing and innate sense of position have gone missing. His reflexes have become mostly ordinary. His body language has become one long, testy lament.

There is only so much Ferguson can do. He can get inside and analyse a young player's football. But he cannot get inside his head or his heart. Is Rooney suffering a long reaction from the ultimately frustrating World Cup experience, when he became such an irrational hope of the nation despite serious injury, then the centrepiece of its disappointment when Sven Goran Eriksson's campaign collapsed so desperately? Is he overdosed with a rich and, given his background, dislocatingly isolated life? Does the attention of celebrity-worshippers irk him more than he can say? These are just some of the questions that surround Rooney's virtual disappearance as a player of dazzling accomplishments and immense excitement.

Rooney's head is maybe not the most accessible of places, but if you could get inside it perhaps one of the least amazing surprises would be the discovery of a sulk. Perhaps Ferguson's rhapsodising of Cristiano Ronaldo has created a degree of angst. Rooney has spent much of what is still a decidedly brief adult life being told that he is possibly the greatest player ever produced in these islands - and almost certainly since George Best. Now he hears that the high-kicking show pony, but plainly hugely talented, Ronaldo is maybe the true Old Trafford megastar. Such appraisals might just unsettle a youngster who has had to absorb so much, so quickly with the possibility that he is now suffering mental fatigue.

Whether this will persuade Ferguson to give Rooney a rest, a decision which can be more easily masked in these days of rotation, with the instructions to forget about the game - and its pressures - will in the end be a matter of instinct. There can be no doubt that the manager is concerned. When Rooney came back to the team after his early season suspension, and promptly played like a drain against Celtic in the Champions' League, Ferguson couldn't keep the mystification off his face. It was compounded by the sight of Paul Scholes re-embracing the game as if it was a long-lost brother.

In Rooney, aged 21, such warming intimacy seems no more than a fading memory. One way or another, it has to be revived. The alternative is a terrible loss for both United and the national game. Such an outcome must remain unthinkable as long as we remember quite what Rooney represents. It is that the country which produced Finney and Matthews, Greaves and Charlton, can still claim to be the home of at least one truly great player. A short, unscheduled holiday would surely be a negligible price.

Capello just the man to bring real change at Madrid

For quite a while now Fabio Capello has been depicted in some quarters as the mean and vengeful assassin of David Beckham's significant football career.

Accusations of bad faith are not new in Capello's career. Some fans of Roma still claim that he sabotaged their club in the days of disillusionment which followed his landing of the Scudetto.

However, few doubt his ability to organise a club and certainly, when you consider the chaos he inherited when he was asked to clear out Beckham and his galactico pals and build a new team which had a little bit more in common with the great ones of the past, his return to the Bernabeu has not been as disastrous as it has sometimes been portrayed.

Sunday's 1-0 victory over Real Zaragoza put Real Madrid alongside Barcelona and just two points off the leaders, Seville. Capello's team contained three signings aged under 21. It was also Real's most promising showing for as long as anyone could remember. Capello's track record should remove all surprise at the possibility that he will indeed prove the coach to stop the rot in Madrid.

As a player he was a top professional with Roma, Juventus and Milan for 13 years and played 38 times for Italy. As a coach he led the Milan of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini to four Serie A titles and the Champions' League, won two titles with Juve, and landed the La Liga crown with Real.

Madrid may already have a "Special One" of its own.

Nixon stands tall and proves that darts is a true sport

Phil Nixon yesterday returned, though perhaps not permanently, to his house-husband duties in the North east. An amateur darts player who arrived at the Lakeside world championship as a tremulous qualifier last weekend, he went home an authentic sports hero. Yes, hero; an ashen-faced, self-doubting battler who may never see his supreme achievement written on the scroll of champions, but whose place in the history of his sport is indelible all the same.

By recovering from a 6-0 set deficit to fighting out the decisive 13th with Martin Adams, he could not have ended the debate about whether darts is truly a competitive sport much more compellingly had he landed a flaming arrow between the eyes of the man standing, somewhat unsteadily, between him and a cheque for £70,000.

Nixon had to settle for less than half of that but he was a rich man indeed when he was embraced by his devoted, and bread-winning, wife.

He stood up, under immense pressure, and defied the script that said he was an inconsequential visitor to the big league of his game. He found more than a little nerve and courage. Courage? Yes, because isn't that what it takes to produce the best of yourself under maximum pressure? The darts men certainly don't take themselves too seriously, not until the moment they start to throw anyway.

Then, unquestionably, they inhabit a genuine arena of sport.

Comments