James Lawton: Now is Rooney's time to prove he has learnt from the lost years

Some time ago, he made his apologies, but now the atonement is tending to come in the form of increasingly impressive action on the pitch

Quite a bit is being made of the 10th anniversary of England's 5-1 rampage in Munich's Olympic stadium but a little more relevant, and encouraging, before tonight's important European Championship qualifier in Sofia, is a match that was played 18 months later.

The "golden generation", it is true, didn't show up so well on this occasion at Sunderland's Stadium of Light. Far from doing celebratory cartwheels, Michael Owen left the field injured. David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes were more or less anonymous and some of the English fans were so disagreeable Uefa imposed a £68,000 fine on the Football Association.

However, there was one persistent point of light in the 2-0 Euro win against World Cup semi-finalists Turkey and it was produced with staggering aplomb by Wayne Rooney. He was 17 at the time and the only member of that team due to appear at the Vasil Levski stadium tonight.

He got his first full competitive call-up as England's youngest player – an honour coach Sven Goran Eriksson would three years later hand to Theo Walcott in the most ludicrous circumstances – largely because the team had been almost indescribably bad against Liechtenstein a few days earlier.

The kid was superb, lifting everyone around him with a touch and assurance that might have come from another world. Indeed, he was so good the memory of it would be seriously poignant if he didn't so obviously now represent the best of Fabio Capello's hopes against Bulgaria.

Tonight is surely another major opportunity for Rooney to prove he is indeed at work on what has become potentially one of the more impressive reclamation jobs in the history of English football. No, we're not talking follicular renewal. We are discussing what just might happen when a player of major but significantly squandered talent vows to rescue his career.

Manchester United have already enjoyed large benefits. Now Capello may also receive a welcome bonus 14 months after he watched in disbelief as Rooney slid into a crisis that threatened to engulf his life as well as his football.

Rooney some time ago made his apologies, including those to the England fans who had the temerity to boo the team's abysmal performance against Algeria in Cape Town, but now the atonement is tending to come in the form of increasingly impressive action.

He has flown to Bulgaria with the momentum of last Sunday's hat-trick against Arsenal, which was still more evidence to support the belief that, at 25, he has grasped the importance of some serious concentration of the mind. A pattern, it is not so hard to believe, has been formed. Certainly, it seemed to be in place at the end of last season, when he emerged from form so poor, so lacking in any signs of inspiration, even basic irrigation, it was increasingly difficult to identify him as the sublime street footballer who was so luminous that night in the North-east.

He made a significant contribution to United's 19th league title and when they went to the sword against Barcelona at Wembley he was one of the few to emerge with a degree of honour, a rare sense, certainly, that he had not been beaten before he walked on to the field.

In Bulgaria the least Rooney provokes is the idea that he may just avoid the fate of that golden generation which promised so much – not least on that night when they plundered arguably the most inept German defence ever to appear on an international field – but in the end delivered so little.

Of course, he still has much to repair. He has to show he understands that so much of what he lost between the years of his brilliant emergence in the 2004 Euro finals in Portugal and the nightmare of his World Cup last year cannot be regained by the fragments of seasons here and there.

If he means it when he says that in his mind Lionel Messi has become not just an utterly exceptional footballer but a living, day-by-day example of how any man should handle the best of his talent, he has taken up a heavy load indeed.

It is one that has already invited a formidable level of doubt, and certainly as many sneers as shouts of approval, but then some of his warmest admirers believe he has already engaged the problem. He has vented his rage, especially when he removed himself from the Wembley FA Cup semi-final last spring by screaming into a goal-line television camera, but now he says he intends to play, only play.

It is a declaration that might have swept him powerfully through some of the worst of his crisis but then the lost years are history now, just like the vanished horizons of the generation he briefly lifted at the Stadium of Light. The good news for him, and maybe even Fabio Capello, is that 10 years after Munich he might just draw them again.

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