When your prime striker seems to be struggling with the washout of the World Cup and his most experienced support act is linked to a move to Bristol City, there are reasons to wonder how the season will play out – even if you are of the most faithful Manchester United disposition.
But Michael Owen is not destined for the same pitches as David James – yesterday's most fanciful transfer story is no more than that – and though the full horror of Rustenburg might have come flooding back when Wayne Rooney was asked to pull on an all-white kit again, the prime conclusion to be drawn from United's final pre-season friendly is "the big man is back", as he once so memorably declared.
Dublin was actually remembering last night the story of how Rooney might once have been an Ireland player. The prospect was never much more than a daydream but a memorable enough one, at that, to be remembered in the match programme. The legend runs that the Irish Football Association, alerted by Rooney's surname as much as the existence of his Irish grandmother Patricia Fitzsimmons, made discreet inquiries at Goodison Park in 2002. There have certainly been times this summer when Rooney, labouring under the weight of national expectations, might have wished himself an Irishman.
But the Rooney who had not scored for the club since his goal in the Champions League final first-leg in Munich which preceded his fatefully sprained ankle, had his head shaved for action. Six days' training, a night out at Manchester's Panacea nightclub and an apparent slug on a cigaratte have been the limit of his preparations but in place of the Jabulani and the jangling anxieties came an ease of movement and burst of pace which showed how it felt to be back among team-mates with an appreciation of your movement and passing.
The chances which came and went to score his first goal since his bad-tempered pre-World Cup friendly against the Platinum All-Stars left him banging his fist on the pitch in frustration by the end. No game is a friendly for Rooney. "I'm not getting into that," Ferguson said when the Panacea cropped up in his press conference.
He also fired a sitter halfway up the banked stand of the new stadium. But two little vignettes told us much about Rooney: a first-time right-foot ball in for Michael Owen; a sashay around the right back and quickly executed shot across the face of goal and narrowly wide.
Owen's presence, as much as his performance and goal, was eye-catching, given that he had even suggested in an interview yesterday that he would miss the start of the season because of the hamstring injury which ended his last one prematurely, 42 minutes into March's Carling Cup final.
Owen looked to have less match fitness than Rooney, though in a sign of Ferguson's desire to get the psychological boost of an early win over the Champions, he may play them both against Chelsea at Wembley. "Six days training isn't enough for the big competitions but I'll have to play them against Chelsea because that will help bring them on," the manager said.
Of the seven goals it was Javier Hernandez's which Ferguson said had thrilled him the most. The Scot doesn't go in for the Chicharito (Little Pea) legend the Mexican wears on his back. It's plain Hernandez for him but a legend the player just might be. His first touch of the game, less than two minutes after replacing Rooney at half-time, brought his goal when he darted in front of Peers expertly to despatch Antonio Valencia's cross. "Fantastic. No drawback at all," Ferguson drooled.
The win, in which Ji-Sung Park (2), Valencia, Johnny Evans and Nani (with a penalty) also scored, with Dave Mulcahy getting the Irish consolation, was too comfortable to read too much into. The Airtricity Cup it might be, but United will believe that with these strikers, there will be more this season.
Ireland XI Rogers; Powell, Oman, Peers, Shelley; Brennan, Williams, Keegan, Guy; Madden, Ndo.
Manchester United Kuszczak; O'Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evans; Valencia, Carrick (Fletcher, 37), Gibson Park; Owen (Berbatov, h-t) Rooney (Chicharito, h-t).Reuse content