In the last 20 years English football has produced two genuinely world-class talents, two of those natural-born performers for whom the game is not so much a challenge as a celebration.
One was Paul Gascoigne. The other is Wayne Rooney. One was doomed by his nature and the company it attracted. The other is, it is surely about time to say, in danger of falling a long way short of his promise.
We all know how it ended for Gazza – and how severe was the onslaught of the demons that still plague him. Rooney, it is reasonable to believe, has no such threat to his future as an exceptional player. Yet he remains a luminary in default, a still largely undelivered gift to the national game.
Sometimes it seems that the spontaneity of his play, the potentially shattering impact of it, is draining away. And what is left in its place? The concern must be that it is unspecified anger, perhaps even a loss of the joy that he brought to the field as a boy of instinct and unfettered confidence.
It is, you sometimes sense from the expression of his manager and would-be mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, not a mystery that permits any easy solution.
For example, allegations that Rooney spat at a paparazzo this week would be less worrying, though still unpleasant, if he had not spent what passes for his entire adult life in the glare of the celebrity world in which his wife Colleen, with whom he was dining in the West End of London at the time of the reported incident, has also made her own extremely profitable mark.
However irksome the attention he may have received from a photographer, the hope must have been that he had reached the point where such a problem could be equated with one presented by some obdurate defender.
Rooney is not, after all some backstreet kid taking his first inevitably gauche steps into the pressure of fame.
His 18th birthday was celebrated at Aintree racecourse with a hired pop group in attendance, and of course the sacred nuptials this summer were flogged off to the highest bidder, as were the rights to an autobiography that made some of the feeblest examples of the genre seem as though they had flowed from the pen of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
No, if we are looking for a category for Mr and Mrs Rooney it is not the one marked "young and innocent and exploited". Of more pressing concern, though, for anyone disturbed by the possibility that some wonderfully pure ability is again in danger of being distracted and thus obscured, if not retarded, by the vulgarities of the celebrity scene, is that our best footballer continues to display the demeanour of a seriously angry young man.
Ferguson has recently conceded that in some ways Rooney may have suffered from the need to play the prodigy in positions which have not been ideally suited to him. His optimum operating location is, plainly, behind the main striker, as we saw often in the days of Ruud van Nistelrooy and, briefly but thrillingly when the great Henrik Larsson performed so classically at Old Trafford.
Yet the problem seems to run more deeply than mere frustration with the method of his deployment. Recently Ferguson was forced to pull him out of a match in South Africa because his temper was running to the point of breakdown – a move former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson was required to make in another friendly game against Spain four years ago.
The pattern has been disturbingly relentless and was never, of course, more graphic than when England slipped out of the last World Cup two years ago – when a raging Rooney received a red card and his club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo winked slyly at the Portugal bench.
Ronaldo has occupied most of the attention and the glory and, more recently, the disdain, since then. But in the process he has maybe illustrated a vital difference between players of similar age and, in the purest terms, talent. While Rooney is overwhelmed by situations, on and off the field, Ronaldo marches on serenely, you might say, in his narcissism – but also, unquestionably, his self-belief.
When Arsène Wenger saw his Arsenal lose an unbeaten record at Everton six years ago under the force of a superb goal from Rooney, he said that he had never seen a better young English player. Other old pros of sober judgement declared that Rooney's talent knew no boundaries. He was an original, someone who might just one day stand beside the likes of Diego Maradona.
Certainly he transformed England in his first competitive international, a European Championship qualifier against Turkey in which he looked years older and inches taller than his most senior team-mates.
It is easy to recall two goals he scored against Middlesbrough in his first season at Old Trafford. Both of them were quite extraordinary in their vision and power and afterwards, when he gunned his black sports car through the stadium car park traffic two young fans ran recklessly in his tyre tracks. It was though they had clapped eyes on the messiah.
That is what he was, then, a young messiah, a young maestro, but it is not so today. The England coach Fabio Capello is dazzled by his moments of virtuosity, dismayed at times by his lack of conviction and concentration and authority.
Maybe it is too easy, or too late, or just too futile, to tell him to listen to the advice of two truly great players who will almost certainly be playing out the last of their time at Old Trafford this season, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
If you could get him to pay attention to the meaning of such men, perhaps most valuable would be the words of Scholes, later echoed by Giggs, when he said recently that while he would miss football profoundly he would not mourn the life of a modern player. He could never bear the implications of being a celebrity footballer. He just wanted to play the game.
That, in the very early days, seemed to be also the main compulsion of Wayne Rooney. But that was before he was known to the paparazzi, the men who would never waste a flash on Paul Scholes.
What price morality when justice is prisoner of clubs' vested interests?
If ever a working footballer earned a charge of bringing the game into disrepute it is surely Joey Barton, the serial thug. Yet how unsurprising it is that his club, Newcastle United, will oppose any Football Association move to institute its own proceedings against his violent conduct, despite the fact that it has been delayed thus far only because of a request by the Crown Prosecution Service before the player faced trial.
We are told that the club attempted to reduce Barton's wages while retaining his cut-priced services. They couldn't do that, legally, but they can cut their losses now that Barton (pictured) has been released from prison. They can get a little value for their money and damn the image of the club and the wider game.
It is not exactly a unique approach. Manchester United were appalled when the FA tagged on an extra six months to their own three-month suspension of Eric Cantona after he jumped a wall at Selhurst Park and assaulted a fan. West Ham were not sufficiently disgusted by a brutal training-ground attack by John Hartson on his team-mate Eyal Berkovic to cancel his contract. That would have cost big money. The Welsh international served a three-match suspension.
It is not true that there isn't any morality in football. There is, just as long as it doesn't cost any money.
Botham remains all-round measure
English cricket fans were right to react with joy when "Freddie" Flintoff displayed some of the best of his talent in a burst of fast bowling which included the magnificent dismissal of Jacques Kallis. But along with the cheers there had to be sadness and reproach, and fresh questions about how it is that for so many years now England's cricketers have failed to deliver consistent performance. The incentive for such musing once again didn't take too long to return with the hero's cheap dismissal at another crisis point last night.
On Thursday Flintoff indeed looked like a man worthy to walk in the footsteps of Sir Ian Botham. However, "Beefy" didn't do it in bursts. He did it, or near died trying, every time he showed up. There is a vast difference of course and it draws a line between notable careers and great ones.Reuse content