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May 30, 2013

Wayne's world at a crossroads

"I'd take a bullet for him," Wayne Rooney once said of Ashley Cole. For now, a simple vote of thanks might be sufficient. Rooney's chum had provided significant cover for him.

We are in a post-season netherworld where any semblance of a story can rock foundations. The England friendlies that follow the Champions League final are where the silly season begins. Rooney, disenfranchised and unwanted by his club, always looked favourite for back-page splashes and lashings from sharp-tongued columnists.

Instead, a classic Football Association bungling of the celebration of Cole's England career as he won his 102nd cap snatched the agenda away. The Chelsea defender's childish refusal to bear any of the responsibilities of the England captain's armband set Fleet Street's thunderers into overdrive.

Before the match with Republic of Ireland, Cole shyly took the plaudits as he celebrated his centurion status. His friend, a similarly shy tabloid pariah, was able to get on with playing. In a matter of months, Rooney will pass the same mark but for now, thanks, mate.

Rooney played his first football in over three weeks under cover of the English media's obsession with the captain's armband. He probably needed it too: he has rarely been one to play his best when 'fresh' and in the spotlight.

The slow excommunication at Manchester United has come from a manager who had always said that Rooney "needed games" to find fitness and spark. From the moment Sir Alex Ferguson dropped him to the bench on March 5 in the Champions League last-16 home leg with Real Madrid, Rooney's status was slowly strangled by not featuring in enough games to ever rediscover his stride.

The feeling was mutual. Rooney often looked as disinterested in playing for Manchester United as Ferguson did in him. The exquisitely chipped pass to supply the goal with which Robin van Persie clinched the title in glorious style against Aston Villa was a reminder of the ability that once made him United's kingpin. However, the Dutchman has superseded Rooney, completely surpassing his contribution.

Ireland, the country of his forefathers, were at Wembley for a match that meant little beyond the chance to right some off-field wrongs from the 1990s. Rooney, however, began with the determination of a man with a point to prove.

A year ago, a tardy arrival after suspension at Euro 2012 saw a less than sylph-like figure resume its regular place in England's forward line. He is still in that role, if only because of the absence of other contenders, but this time actually looked lean and competitive.

A fourth-minute attempt to ape the aforementioned Van Persie goal against Aston Villa resulted in a shot that looped wide. Soon after, he was to be found angrily berating the Scottish referee for a perceived foul on Lampard. A supposed friendly was being taken seriously, and when England fell behind to a peach of a header from Shane Long, Rooney led the English recovery effort.

Players often talk of being able to leave their worries outside the white lines of the football field. Rooney has not been granted such an oasis since last month's discussion with Ferguson, which may or may not have been a transfer request - it depends on which camp is doing the briefing. Whichever is nearest the truth, that meeting ended the sometime striker's participation in United's season.

As United signed off with the celebrations of Ferguson that marked the end of their finest era, Rooney was a noticeable afterthought. A cursory hug was exchanged with the manager he once labelled "a genius" on the way to collecting a fifth Premier League medal. While Ferguson gave a valedictory speech to more than 100,000 United fans in Manchester's Albert Square, Rooney was sat down, staring out into the hordes, paying little attention to what his manager had to say. There was no laughing at the boss' jokes, no joining in the singing that was being led by Rio Ferdinand. When Ferdinand tried to get the "Rooney, Rooney" chants going, there were more than a few audible boos.

Ferguson, who signed off with the Manchester press pack with the rather spurious claim that he has never borne grudges, has taken recompense for the panic of October 2010 that forced him into kowtowing to demands made by Camp Rooney. In the statement that preceded Rooney's volte-face to sign his lucrative new contract, the player had said: "I asked for assurances about the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world."

The eventual signing of Van Persie matched such ambition, except it came in Rooney's position. Ferguson's revenge has been sweetly and coldly delivered. Rooney, whose status as one of those 'top players' has lessened exponentially since that call for reinforcements, is now expendable. Deciding on his future has become the first major call for David Moyes, a manager who once launched legal action against Rooney for some autobiographical claims that did not stand up to a libel writ.

The Rooney situation allows Moyes to stamp his authority either way. Sell the player, make funds available. Keep Rooney, make him improve his fitness and force him prove his commitment to Manchester United. The cards are with Moyes. The superclubs of Europe are hardly beating down the doors. Luis Suarez's potential availability knocks Rooney further down the pecking order. Only PSG have taken any steps to court him, though Chelsea remain an outside chance. Even the mega-euros being plunged on AS Monaco are not being wafted in Rooney's direction.

England still expects of Rooney, wherever he ends up playing his football. Unlike at United, the competition for places is hardly strong. In the national set-up, and until Jack Wilshere plays more regularly, Rooney is still most probably the best player. At Wembley on Wednesday, his tricks and feints were usually England's best chance of breaching Ireland's deep-set defence.

"He did a lot of good things," Hodgson said of Rooney. "He was very much involved in most of our attacking play."

Always asking for the ball, often prompting, the No. 10 looked as happy as he has done as a footballer in some time. He completed a first 90 minutes since April 14. Even within the confines of a truly forgettable fixture where symbolism always outweighed quality of football, it was probably pleasurable to still feel wanted again. A trip to Rio de Janeiro awaits, but then the serious business of working out a football future begins.

Too much too soon, then not enough - the drift of Rooney's expected trajectory matches that of many a British star footballer. At 27, going on 28, a crossroads is fast approaching. The summer ahead is the most vital of his career.

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