Wayne Rooney may never find himself remembered as an icon for a liberated generation, he may never have his pick of the most choice Miss World candidates but, as English football searched for a way to articulate its feelings for the late George Best yesterday, it was Manchester United's 20-year-old who offered the most eloquent tribute.
Rooney's team found themselves a goal down after less than a minute and that they left the pitch victorious was a testament to his sheer ability to bend a game to his will.
Rooney scored the first United goal, he made the second, he could - in his manager's words - have had a further "four or five" and he even left Upton Park clutching a bottle of champagne: it was a performance that Best might, had he been alive to see it, have mistaken for one of his own. This was the day that United's fans came to honour the passing of a player who has defined the history of their club and they will have left talking about a 20-year-old who has the power to shape their future.
Sir Alex Ferguson has never praised lightly and before yesterday's match he said he had explained to his players that comparisons between Rooney and Best were "inevitable". By the end of the game Ferguson was emboldened enough to make one of his own when he said that he had hoped that somebody would have "produced some moments that reflected" Best's legacy.
"He's only 20 years old and without question the best young player I've seen in my time and if he keeps developing and matures goodness knows what he can become," Ferguson said. "At the moment he's a breath of fresh air." Only one flash of the old temper, a kick at Danny Gabbidon that earned him a booking, blemished a Rooney display that lifted United up to second in the Premiership, 10 points behind Chelsea with a game in hand.
Before the afternoon became Rooney's own show - and he was well assisted by a dominant performance from Paul Scholes - it began in tribute to Best, with words from Sir Trevor Brooking and Sir Bobby Charlton on the pitch. There was also the absorbing side-show of the Ferdinand family duel between Rio and Anton, in which the younger sibling distinguished himself, and the quickest goal to be scored in the Premiership this season.
West Ham's opener was timed at 52 seconds and the nature of its creation captured the frailties of Ferguson's side in defence. Yossi Benayoun stole possession from Ruud van Nistelrooy in midfield and pushed the ball out left to Matthew Etherington, whose cross was struck first time by Marlon Harewood inside Edwin van der Sar's near post. If it was an inauspicious start for Rio Ferdinand, whose indecision allowed Harewood to run free, even worse was to follow for his defensive partner, Mikaël Silvestre, who was the subject of a humiliating substitution eight minutes before half-time.
In the aftermath of West Ham's goal it was hard not to think that they had invited an almighty wrath down upon themselves, so complete was the dominance of the away side. In the midst of that assault on the home end an unlikely hero emerged in the West Ham goal. Roy Carroll first distinguished himself with a point-blank stop from Van Nistelrooy on 10 minutes and then denied Scholes and Rooney twice as the West Ham goalkeeper's former side opened up relentlessly on his goal.
Silvestre headed angrily down the tunnel when he was substituted in the 37th minute and Ferguson switched Wes Brown to the centre of defence and brought Gary Neville on at right-back. At the other end an accomplished performance was being crafted by Anton Ferdinand, who matched his brother's fondness for risk in his own penalty area on 22 minutes by swerving away from Van Nistelrooy after Carroll had parried a Rooney shot.
The 20-year-old West Ham defender handled Van Nistelrooy with a degree of maturity that will have impressed his sibling. He came close to losing his temper with the Dutchman when the striker's wayward tackle clipped an ankle, but, in the second half, Ferdinand, like the rest of his West Ham team-mates, was powerless to stop Rooney's onslaught.
"He [Best] was a great player and one of the best in the world ever," Rooney said. "I've got a long way to go before reaching those heights but maybe one day people will talk about me like that." Rooney began his work within two minutes of the restart when Tomas Repka failed to clear down the right. Park Ji-Sung poked through a neat ball to Rooney, who beat Gabbidon before slipping the ball under Carroll.
On 56 minutes a run from Rooney took him past two defenders to win a corner. From that cross, Carroll's first-half display was lost in his woeful attempt to punch - instead John O'Shea climbed higher and headed into an unguarded goal. Van Nistelrooy chipped Carroll on 70 minutes, but his shot hit the crossbar, and Rooney should have had a third from Neville's cross with a minute left.
"It was probably fitting that he [Rooney] put in a performance like that," Alan Pardew said. "United were at full tilt - Rooney most of all. Maybe he deserved to wear that No 7 shirt, he was that good." The West Ham manager was right in his assessment that his team, especially Ferdinand, had not performed badly at all, they had just encountered a United team in form and a 20-year-old striker inspired - on a day that meant more to his club than most.
Goals: Harewood (1) 1-0; Rooney (47) 1-1; O'Shea 1-2 (56)
West Ham United (4-4-2): Carroll; Repka, Ferdinand, Gabbidon, Konchesky; Benayoun, Mullins (Dailly, 71), Noble, Etherington (Newton, 88); Harewood, Sheringham (Zamora, 71). Substitutes not used: Hislop (gk), Aliadière.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre (Neville 37), O'Shea; Fletcher, Scholes, Smith, Park; Van Nistelrooy (Richardson, 89), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Ronaldo, Saha.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: West Ham United Noble, Sheringham; Manchester United Silvestre, Van Nistelrooy, Rooney.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Attendance: 34,755.Reuse content