James Lawton: Rooney's lack of control is a potential tragic waste

He has become sullen, beyond an inherent lack of grace. It is a retreat behind barbed wire

Of all the dramas of the Champions League, one of the most uplifting should be quite what is going on in the head and the spirit of Wayne Rooney when he steps out at Stamford Bridge tonight.

Instead we can only speculate in the murk of a troubling possibility. It is that for one reason or another he has gone beyond that capacity to draw joy from the game he once played with the relish of a boy.

You can taste his anger and when you do, so routinely now, you have to wonder what might appease it. Plainly, it is nothing as simple as the scattering of his critics, and still less the accumulation of wealth that last year he was able to augment with a chilling arrogance when he held Manchester United up for ransom.

If we had any doubts about this, they surely dissolved when he glared into the camera at Upton Park on Saturday at that moment when he had single-handedly restored his stuttering team's command of the Premier League title race. This, much more than his spectacular winning goal against Manchester City recently, was the sweetest justification of the belief that he indeed remains a footballer of outstanding ability.

There could be only two reactions. One was that he was unhinged, temporarily or otherwise. The other was that, at the age of 25, the most brilliant deeds had become less a cause for celebration but the most rancorous recrimination. Yes, he had been taunted relentlessly but he has had plenty of time to absorb some of the more disgusting aspects of his workplace.

When he played at Goodison Park a few seasons ago, long before the revelations which threatened his marriage in the wake of his second dreadful World Cup experience, the hostility of the home fans had reached a level that might have been surpassed only by a lynch mob. It was epitomised by the sight of a 10-year-old in an Everton shirt bearing the legend: "I Hate Rooney".

One arguable result is that he has become sullen in a way that goes beyond an inherent lack of grace. It is not even a straight forward matter of self-absorption. It is a retreat behind barbed wire.

We can only guess at the level of attention he will receive against Chelsea beyond the certainty that it will be extreme, and have little or nothing to do with the growing evidence that he has regained the touch and the form to influence any game.

In a way that would be impossible to convince the vast majority of his critics, there is something of a potential tragedy here. If Rooney cannot find the satisfaction on the football field that floods through someone like Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta at moments of supreme triumph where will he track it down? Will he get it in some watering hole surrounded by hangers-on who know how to interpret his moods? Perhaps it will come in the seclusion of his pile in the stock-broker belt?

Current evidence is scarcely encouraging. We once saw Rooney as the last of the street footballers, a rough kid for whom at least a few things made a little sense when he had a ball at his feet. It would be pretty to think this still holds true on a night when he plays one of the most important games of his life, but how much glory will it take to slake his anger? The worry is that will never be enough.

Sports journalist of year

James Lawton is the Sports Journalist of the Year after he was recognised by his peers at the British Press Awards in London last night.

The judges praised the consistent high quality of his work, saying that "he has been producing great journalism for decades and goes from strength to strength". As well as his regular contributions to The Independent, James has a daily column in our sister paper i.