James Lawton: Birthday boy Rooney's rediscovery of natural brilliance a cause for celebration

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The Independent Online

Wayne Rooney is 22 tomorrow – a milestone that can surely be celebrated with a much freer heart than might have seemed possible not so long ago, and especially not on the sultry afternoon in Gelsenkirchen the summer before last when the failure of England's World Cup campaign, and its irrational faith in his ability to sail through the effects of serious injury and a lack of match fitness, was signalled in a moment of brutal self-destruction.

Then you wondered if Wayne's World, its precocious tumble into all the diversions implicit in his fiancée's elevation as a WAG high priestess, was under irresistible siege.

His very love of the game seemed to have been deeply compromised. Even before he stamped on Ricardo Carvalho's testicles, he had shown disturbing signs of petulance, throwing his boots down in the England dugout after being withdrawn from a group game with Sweden, and the season that followed Rooney's sullen detachment from the best of his form, his sheer appetite for the game, was a mystery that troubled even the faithful Sir Alex Ferguson.

The hope now, and it is a pivotal one for both United and England, must be that the furies that had so plainly pushed their way to the surface of his life are at least to some degree spent.

He reaches 22, certainly, at a time when he is reannouncing so much of the natural power and instinctive brilliance that as far back as three years ago persuaded some hard old judges that he might just be the most naturally gifted sportsman produced in these islands since George Best.

His lacerating form is also beautifully timed in the wider interests of English football, such a poor relation of rugby union and motor racing these last few days when Johnny Wilkinson and Lewis Hamilton had between them annexed just about every every available hero-worshipper.

With due respect to these superb professional sportsmen, Rooney's reassertion of extraordinary God-given ability is a timely lesson about the challenge of assessing greatness in sport.

Of course there are different strokes, and votes, for different folks operating under separate yokes, but when Rooney is around the top of his game – which hasn't been as often as his fiercest admirers must have hoped in recent years, and this is true even when you put aside a series of wretchedly timed injuries – we are surely carried towards the highest possible terrain.

Hamilton, however sublime his nerve and skill at outrageous speed, requires a near-perfect standard of technical support to ensure victory. Wilkinson, as we saw in the Stade de France on Saturday night, needs a team operating at somewhere around optimum efficiency to exploit his fine but less than utterly spontaneous talent properly.

Rooney, because of the menace that wells up in him like some natural force, because of his natural ability to find the most dangerous positions, and because of the great subtlety of the game he plays, has another dimension – as he proved in the European Championship in Portugal in 2004 when, before injury cut him down, he made his England team, of all things, look like potential champions.

It is why – when England's chances of even appearing in these same finals next summer rest outside their control after an inept qualifying campaign in one of the weakest groups – there is a striking case for a certain item to go to the top of his birthday gift list.

It is a protection order for the preservation of a national treasure. But protection from what? From the worst effects of a celebrity culture and its power to distract and distort and – as in the cases of the other great virtuoso thrown up here over the last two decades, Paul Gascoigne – destroy. Protection from the frustrations of playing for a national team which meanders from one ineffectual regime to another.

Perhaps most of all, though, defence against some of the most dislocating aspects of his own nature; the quick fuse, the often minimal sense of responsibility when things are going so well while playing for his club or his country, the failure sometimes to remember that what he has is a gift both glorious and vulnerable in the pressure and the attention it invites.

However, Rooney's re-emergence in recent games as a goalscorer of wonderful potency, and originality, is the most positive statement so far about his chances of confirming the basis of that first euphoric reaction to his performances as a teenager for Everton.

When Arsenal lost an unbeaten record of 30 games at Goodison Park because of the elemental force of this man-child footballer, Arsène Wenger promptly declared, "This is the best young English player I have ever seen."

That was some anointing and it is one which takes us naturally to what could prove the central drama of a Premier League season which already has lifted its intrigue quota to an unprecedent level. If Rooney is the best young English footballer Wenger has ever seen, where does he go if his choice is widened?

Already this season there are strong indications that it might well be to his own astonishingly mature midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who has to wait – it seems scarcely credible – another seven months before he celebrates his 21st birthday.

Whatever else they achieve on behalf of Manchester United and Arsenal in the title race, Rooney and Fabregas have surely taken upon themselves, consciously or not, a challenge of considerable dimension

It is one of making nonsense of recent claims that because of poor international results, and the surge of patriotic zeal which greeted the resurrection of England's rugby union team, football is suddenly a fading force in the fight for popularity.

When Rooney does what he can do with such thrilling freedom, when Fabregas shapes a game with serial joy at the re-discovery of his powers, we are reminded of why the power of football reaches into every corner of the world.

Between them they are promising a vintage race. We should drink to their youth – and all they promise to an allegedly jaded game.

Justice served in Hamilton's case

Lewis Hamilton has, quite predictably, reacted coolly and well to the disappointment that came to him in Sao Paulo – so well, indeed, that you have to welcome the decision not to hand him the World Championship on a technicality.

Rules are rules, of course, but when they have been massaged and, indeed turned inside out, as vigorously as they have by Formula One in the effort to create an exciting climax to what promised to be Hamilton's historic charge at glory, there is a point where the whole exercise becomes counter-productive to everyone involved.

Hamilton made a serious mistake – and his car malfunctioned critically. That headed off a national celebration in England, but it was still possible to raise a glass to natural justice. Victory for spied-upon Ferrari hurt McLaren more than their £50m fine. Hamilton will inevitably come again. Hopefully, the most outrageous cheating in competitive sport will not.

Why Wilkinson made us all feel better the morning after the night before

Jonny Wilkinson's confession that he tied one or two on after World Cup final defeat has, naturally, sparked a degree of criticism in some quarters. A teetotaller, a model of scrupulous professionalism and clean living, a young man who practised his kicking art with the detachment of a contemplative monk, he had set an awesome standard of personal dedication.

Yet all the time there was this terrible suspicion that he had come from another planet; that if you cut him his blood would be an unfamiliar colour.

Now, such fears can never surface again. If you doubt it, you should see the picture of Jonny in his hotel room on Sunday morning. While his friend David Beckham is apparently fastidious about tidiness, lines up his trainers and his toiletries with obsessive care, Wilkinson on at least one night of his life said to hell with it. To hell with everything. He went out and downed enough drinks to feel "rank" in the morning. His room looked vaguely as though it might have been occupied by some old Sixties rocker.

His hair was tousled.

It may not help his mood too much, too quickly, but if it is sadly true he failed to make the nation happy on Saturday night, he made some of us feel a whole lot better on Sunday morning. Who would have thought it ever possible to say, "You think I look bad? you should have seen Jonny Wilkinson."

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