United too reliant on ruthless Rooney
When good news had been as rare as a sighting of any member of the Glazer family in Manchester, it fell to Wayne Rooney to provide some cause for optimism. When a man was needed to send his side through to the Carling Cup final and extend Manchester City's long wait for silverware, Rooney obliged. That is all too typical: whenever anything needs doing at Old Trafford, Rooney seems to volunteer.
The spirit is willing, the body equally so. In a squad where anaemia appears to afflict a few and the physical failings of the decaying undermine others, he is an anomaly. In a group of players lacking forceful virtuosity, he is an exception. In an age when all others appear to covet a move to Real Madrid or Barcelona, he is the odd man out.
The England striker's declaration that he is happy in England, despite supposed interest in Spain, should provide consolation for the Manchester United supporters in worrying times. His performances offer excitement, something too few of his colleagues are capable of engendering. Rooney's goals have brought a title challenge that would surely have vanished had he succumbed to an injury at any stage of the campaign and his chest-puffed-out, studs-flying bravado gives United a swagger they would otherwise lack.
Rooney's ubiquity has long been a feature of life at Old Trafford. His wholehearted efforts sometimes belie his status as a centre forward, with the position of frustrated full-back one he has become accustomed to playing - earnestly chasing back on either flank when needed, and even when not.
Many have suggested that this part of his game proves he lacks the selfishness that characterises many of the great goalscorers. Rooney will probably never be able to restrict his movements to the width of the penalty box, but he has certainly acquired a ruthlessness of late. His quadruple against Hull took him to 99 Premier League goals and a tally this season to 19 in 22 games. For a man who had rarely struck at the strikers' holy grail of one every other game, it represents a stunning improvement.
It is also reminiscent of two of his former accomplices; Carlos Tevez is now applying a finishing touch to accompany his considerable efforts elsewhere in Manchester while, three seasons ago, Cristiano Ronaldo began his journey from irregular scorer to invariable match-winner. Rooney had less far to travel, but the rate at which he has progressed is notable nonetheless. So, too, is the solitary nature of his excellence en route.
There was supposed to be a democratic distribution of Ronaldo's responsibilities this season. To Michael Carrick, the penalties; to Nani, the free kicks and outbreaks of gratuitous showmanship; to Antonio Valencia, the spot on the right wing; to Michael Owen, the iconic No. 7 shirt; to Dimitar Berbatov, the role of imported match-winner.
Instead, though Valencia has performed his duties speedily and Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs have responded admirably this season, pretty much everything else rests on Rooney. In two meetings in a month, the aggregate score between United and Hull was 7-1 yet the difference between the sides was one man: Rooney.
It illustrates a dependence that means Rooney is exempt from Sir Alex Ferguson's habitual squad rotation. He has scored in United's last seven Premier League victories; a rare rest on the bench, barely 48 hours after the birth of his son, was curtailed when Rooney was required to supply a rescue act when United trailed 3-1 to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.
A catalyst has a still greater potential when the alternatives are unenviable. Berbatov's divine touches are not matched by the devastating effectiveness the finest finishers display, while Ferguson, though he is unlikely ever to admit it, surely overestimated Owen's capabilities.
It places Rooney in an unusual position. United's finest teams have been built on a constellation of stars; silverware was only secured when Denis Law joined Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford, the European Cup when George Best had graduated to their level. Sometimes one light shines brightest, as Eric Cantona's did, but others are capable of supplying illuminations. An ageing Giggs and a mercurial Berbatov aside, Rooney's colleagues lack the panache and pizzazz in the final third.
One writer likened Rooney to Best in 1970, an outstanding player in a declining team. Maintain his current form and a closer comparison may be Cantona in 1996, a man who turned a title win from an ensemble piece into a single-minded quest.
For Cantona, however, it was the culmination of a career and came at a time when a younger generation were readying themselves to render him less important. Rooney is younger, but United's finances may make the long-term prognosis gloomier. No successors or sidekicks are in sight.
It is tempting to speculate how different the picture would be were Tevez signed instead of Berbatov or were United owned by shareholders who could use their considerable profits to recruit players of a similar standard; tempting, but irrelevant.
One burden that has eluded Rooney is the United captaincy, with Ferguson favouring Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra and John O'Shea even in the absence of Gary Neville, Giggs and Rio Ferdinand. But United's true leader is apparent. He is the top scorer, the talisman, the sole superstar and the willing worker; the man separating them from mediocrity with his bullish brand of brilliance.