Butt cannot hide the Rooney 'ifs'

Day for precocity and petulance: when Ronaldo met Roonaldo
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The Independent Football

There was a pitiful inevitability about it all. A talent that some have lauded as genius was intent on doing serious damage, and an opponent's arm grabbed his shirt. It was a pathetic response, and the Football Association should examine the video of the Manchester United versus Everton game two days ago and consider prosecuting a charge of bringing the game into repute.

Yes, repute. The hand that was tugging belonged to Nicky Butt, and on this occasion he was not indulging in the game's blight in testing the stitching of a rival's kit. Instead, the United midfielder was stopping a young opponent from further trying the patience of authority. And yes, sadly, there was a pathetic inevitability about it, because it was Wayne Rooney who was being hauled into line.

Rooney had a miserable Boxing Day wandering in Old Trafford's outskirts when his talent should have put him at the centre of the action. The contrast was profound compared to his performance on the same stage last season, when a 16-minute cameo shocked the senses with its precocity. One run alone announced him, a slalom that scattered United's defence, but there was so much more: a man's brain in a boy's body.

Move to the present and the exuberance appears to have been replaced by a weary toil against celebrity and expectation. At 18, Rooney looks a troubled soul struggling to fathom why he excites the senses when he puts on a white England shirt but often struggles in the blue of his club.

On Friday, the maturity of 14 months ago was replaced by a tangle of teenage hormones that exploded when he saw a peer strutting on his parade. Cristiano Ronaldo, United's equally perplexing prodigy, was teasing Everton when Rooney made his only significant contribution, a lunge given weight by frustration but, worryingly, laced with spite.

The inescapable caution followed - his seventh of the season - and within minutes that lamentable statistic could have been tarnished further as Rooney visited the playground again to scream annoyance at authority. Fortunately for him, Butt, an England team-mate, discreetly pulled the reins.

When opponents have to come to your rescue you have a problem, and it contrasted with Everton's treatment of Ronaldo. He can infuriate colleagues because his brain does not always work as quickly as his feet, but when he is having one of his days he is such an irritant to defenders their usual recourse is to try to put him in the stand. Tony Hibbert, then Rooney, would gladly have obliged. "He has to put up with some rough treatment because that's the way he plays," Gary Neville said. "I think if I was playing against him and he was doing those tricks I'd like to stick a few on him too."

There have been a few occasions this season when you have not had to be an opponent to want to "stick a few" on Ronaldo, and one of the lingering images of the Manchester derby was of Roy Keane's near-apoplexy when the Portuguese winger surrendered his bearings and headed a perfect through-pass to City's Nicolas Anelka. It is not an isolated incident, and United fans are accustomed to both sides of the 18-year-old's coin.

The white mini-socks Ronaldo wears over United's normal black give him the appearance of a foal and, like a young animal, he can appear terribly gauche. One moment against Everton he was tying his legs up as a trick went wrong; another, for the third goal, he was beating two defenders in the confined space of the area, and from a standing start in a manner few could emulate. "He's good now," Sir Alex Ferguson commented, choosing to condone mistakes in his £12m teenager, "but just wait two years, he'll be truly outstanding. As for his best position, I don't know yet because he's still developing. It may even be as a striker."

Comparisons with Rooney would then be direct, and it is a moot point which of them will handle the attention better. In the blue corner you have much the more complete talent, in the red the better temperament, and how they conquer their flaws will help define the future of two great clubs. They have it within them to reach far. Way beyond the grasp of friendly or hostile hands.