James Lawton: Wayne Rooney could be a spent force already at 24
The Wayne Rooney mess is not so much a crisis as a stain on the culture of English football.
It divests, in one big, ugly breakdown, the national game of a belief that the largesse it pours into the pockets of its most celebrated players has much more purpose than some very bad cases of self-destruction.
The sweet life has never looked more rancid.
Not least it makes fools of those of us, and principally Sir Alex Ferguson, who believed that if the most naturally gifted player these islands have produced since Paul Gascoigne, and even, arguably George Best, was not exactly a bundle of charm he did represent something of a hard and redeeming certainty for a football nation that had apparently forgotten how to produce truly world-class players.
Now we have the surreal situation of Rooney's barely concealed conflict with Ferguson and the equally bizarre possibility, in all his circumstances, that he has become preoccupied by the failure of United to surround him with A-list signings.
This would carry a whole lot more credence if Rooney did not seem as though he is in a complete personality meltdown rather than just a slump of form. How can you lament the failings of your colleagues at a time when you show every indication of forgetting how to kick the ball?
These last few days the stain has seeped all over the already blurred picture of Manchester United's future, presenting Ferguson with the agonising case for easing the Glazer debt load with the sale of the player in whom he so recently had reason to see his best chance of holding off the plutocrats of Chelsea and Manchester City before he heads off into the sunset.
This, though, is merely an aspect of the problem Manchester United shareholders heaped on Ferguson when they agreed to a takeover and a business plan which read like something out of The Merchant of Venice.
You didn't have to be a dazzling product of the London School of Economics to understand that huge structural weaknesses had been created at a club whose achievements and guaranteed cash flow seemed to have made a position of unbreakable strength.
What was less easy to predict was that Rooney, “the last of the street footballers”, would so carelessly put at risk the talent and the confidence which in his most memorable performances seemed to form the core of his being.
The supreme irony is that it is Rooney who has put United's vulnerability into such a harsh spotlight. Ferguson paid out £30m when much of the rest of English football was content to hold a watching brief, Jose Mourinho going so far as to say he preferred the career possibilities of the relatively obscure Serbian Mateja Kezman, who had cost him a mere £5m after a burst of scoring in the Dutch league.
Mourinho was hopelessly wrong then but it doesn't seem likely that as coach of Real Madrid he will feel any burning compulsion to revise his assessment of Rooney's long-term potential.
For Manchester City there is a huge temptation, even at the extreme risk of failing Uefa's thrift test for European contenders, to make Glazer eyes water with the scale of their offer. The motivation is brutally basic. How better to thrust United into second-class status than plunder a player who less than a year ago was still looking like one of the wonders of the game?
No, he doesn't look that now. He looks like somebody who is not just unsure about the point of playing football but also of putting one foot in front of the other. Still, imagine the torment at Old Trafford while waiting to see if the old flame can indeed be reignited at the hardly advanced age of 24.
It is not unreasonable to believe that this may well happen, perhaps when the pain he has brought to his private life loses its raw edge, maybe when his “advisers” are able to persuade him that a new contract, wherever it is successfully presented, represents a fair reward for a fair day's work.
One piece of revisionist nonsense in the wake of his appalling performances in the World Cup is that his talent had always been overrated and that what happened in South African was merely evidence that expectations, and the resulting pressure, had run too high.
Let's be very sure about one thing in these worst days of Rooney's career.
He is indeed a remarkable football item, possessing a degree of instinct and touch that makes his current poverty of form and exuberance something as poignant to see as the evidence that Gascoigne simply didn't have means to handle properly the extravagant gifts that had come his way.
One abiding memory of Gascoigne's ill-starred progress through football is of him striding into the lounge of a hotel at the top of Rome's Via Veneto. He had just passed a fitness test with Lazio and he strode to the grand piano, ordered a glass of champagne and produced a very passable tinkling of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
They weren't, of course, not with anything like permanence, and you still had to fear for him, just as you have to do for Rooney today.
It is the concern that for one reason or another an extraordinary talent, one with the potential to take him to the highest levels of the game, has somehow been disabled.
We can speculate upon the causes for as long as we like, the dislocating effect of vast wealth, the need to meet certain expectations on the field and some off the field which he is perhaps less capable of carrying.
We can say that this is one key psychological battle that Ferguson has failed when handling an outstanding footballer subject to ungovernable pressures from both within and without.
In the end, though, the biggest worry is that the way football is today it is bound to find a fault line in an individual player of special talent.
Certainly, the happy days seem pretty remote right now.