Rooney only too willing to impose his sublime talent on game's showpiece

There is a pattern to the progress of United's prodigy. James Lawton examines a talent for delivering the knockout blow
Click to follow
The Independent Football

If Wayne Rooney was the young Zulu warrior his demeanour can sometimes suggest, he might be asking today how many rites of passage he has to make, how many spears he has to wash?

Instead, Manchester United's man-child superstar, the player most capable of turning today's Cup final with a stroke or two of ungovernable talent, simply offers the basic clue to why his progress has been quite so astonishing.

It lies in that passion to play - just to play - which separates all the great performers, and which so often in modern football is eroded if not swept away utterly on a tide of celebrity and wealth.

Rooney's vulnerability to these twin forces of destruction - which so ransacked the life of his predecessor as the most gifted player of his day in these islands, Paul Gascoigne - have been agonised over ever since he emerged so dramatically as a 16-year-old match-winner for Everton against an Arsenal team burning up the land.

Yet each crisis, each flood of headlines - some of them guaranteed to invade the self-regard of a less sturdily independent nature - has brought the confirming evidence that Wayne Rooney indeed lives to play football. No calamity beyond the touchlines, it seems, ever touches that imperative.

This week Rooney talked about his first season with United as though it had been no more remarkable than the year of some trade apprentice over the road in the vast industrial network across the road in Trafford Park.

Here is Rooney on the story that convulsed the football nation - and just two months ago turned his old hunting ground Goodison Park into a cockpit of spewing hate... "It all happened so quickly to be honest ... one day I was at Everton, the next I was at Manchester United, so it was a big change for me both on off the field. But for me, the big thing was that I had come back from Portugal with a broken foot and I all wanted to do was play..."

When he did, of course, he convulsed Old Trafford with a hat-trick and restated evidence of amazing precocity, one which some old pros said suggested a potential to join the company of the greatest players of all time.

This opinion was sneered at when the boy lost his head in Madrid and provoked the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, to pull him off the field before the referee reached for the red card. The publicity generated by his fiancée's shopping sprees was another portent of impending disaster, and especially so as it came on the heels of one tabloid's decision that his forays in a backstreet Liverpool massage parlour warranted a front-page splash. But did his patron, and £28m purchaser Sir Alex Ferguson hold his head in his hands and panic? No, he swept away the criticism because he knew - and if anyone was entitled to, it was certainly him - that this was a boy impervious to the clamour of the crowd and the seductions of fame.

"He's very young but he is also very brilliant," said Ferguson, "and he'll be fine."

Rooney talked this week about the build-up to that first outing against Fenerbahce in the Champions' League, describing the bliss he felt when Ferguson called to say that he would play his first big game since dazzling the football world with his performances for England in last season's European Championship.

"I had to wait a long time for my debut with United," said Rooney, "and coming back from Portugal with the injury, it was bit difficult to concentrate, especially after my move, but I knew everything would be all right when I could settle down and get fit ... and getting playing again. It was horrible waiting around and going to the games [and getting almost prodded as some prize exhibit in a bloodstock show] when all you wanted to do was get out there on the field and play. When the gaffer called me to say I would be in against Fenerbahce I was made up."

What price another Rooney explosion today? Do not expect much generosity at the betting window. The Kid is smouldering as he goes into still another rite of passage, his first Cup final, and he says, "Obviously it's been a disappointing season for us finishing third, but we do have the Cup to look forward to and so, hopefully, we can bring the trophy back."

However unpromising the odds, there is a certain obligation to back the thoroughbred talent, because when you go back through his brief but extraordinary career you see an indelible pattern. It is one of wonderfully mature competitive nerve; he loves the acclaim, but it is something in the background, a consequence of - not the motive of - a talent for expressing himself in every part of the game.

Already you could write a book on Rooney's most stunning moments. Against Middlesbrough in an earlier round of the Cup he volleyed and chipped in goals that were as brilliant as they were detached in the aspects of skill they revealed. Against Portsmouth, he scored a goal of delicious cunning. Against Newcastle, he delivered a knockout blow that would not have been out of place at Madison Square Garden. What will he do for us today? He cannot, and will not, complain about such expectation? No one expects more of him than himself, and who was it, anyway, who drew up the most thrilling agenda in English football?

He did in Sunderland against Turkey in a European Championship qualifying game. He didn't score, but he changed the match utterly. At his first attempt he turned England into a confident, vibrant team, and it happened in one moment of bewildering skill and soaring confidence. He plucked the ball from the air with one foot and launched himself into a run with the other. Turkey, World Cup semi-finalists, were instantly diminished and they never recovered.

Then, whatever the turbulence of youth and a background of the streets, the aura of Wayne Rooney was set. There was another glimpse of it after the break-out against Middlesbrough, when he gunned his sports car through the cluttered after-match traffic around Old Trafford.

Two young Mancs, dodging wheels and skipping over bonnets, kept him in their sights and got him at a stop light. He wound down his window and signed their books, and smiled with the simple pleasure of a contented boy.

It is one that you suspect will never disappear for too long when Wayne Rooney is playing football, in a Cup final, as today, or in the street. For him there will never be a final rite of passage. Only another game to play.