Manchester United's Wayne Rooney must reinvent himself – as a player Sir Alex Ferguson still needs
"If I hear a player has fallen out of love with us, I help them out of the door," wrote Ferguson
The last time it was suggested – it was slightly more than seven months ago – that the future of Wayne Rooney at Manchester United was no longer a seamless journey into a distant future the reaction was quite extraordinary, even unprecedented. Indeed, official denials were flashing across the wires before the papers were put to bed.
Such emphatic denial, understandably enough, is a little less thick on the ground right now.
Interestingly, among all the disavowals back in January, there was not one of anything vaguely resembling the unequivocal from the man who had provoked the controversy, Sir Alex Ferguson, when he summarily dropped Rooney from an important league match, levied a fine of £250,000, then yanked him from the field in the subsequent match at Newcastle.
If that wasn't a statement of extreme concern about the player's commitment to the cause, one that Rooney no doubt assuaged for a while by a volcanic, shirt-kissing return to the team in a Cup tie at Manchester City and a vital run of consistent goalscoring, you had to wonder how much more explicit the master of Old Trafford could have been.
Such reflection has been inevitable, at least here, in the past few days when it has been pretty much impossible not to connect a sentence in the manager's programme notes before the weekend game with Fulham with another shocking decision to drop Rooney. "If I hear a player has fallen out of love with us, and is looking elsewhere, I invariably help them out of the door," wrote Ferguson.
That might seem like a line from a most familiar hymn sheet – one which has thundered in the ears of so many deposed United icons down the years – but it was given even more resonance by Rooney's presence on the bench while Robin van Persie and United's other new signing Shinji Kagawa brought such impressive animation to the team in which Rooney had laboured so heavily in a nightmare defeat at Goodison Park.
The pattern, Rooney needs to remind himself in an absence from the game which, apparently, could stretch to two months following the gash that brought to a premature end his substitute stint, has long been established at Ferguson's United. A player may propose, as Rooney did in the autumn of his horrendous 2010, a new horizon for himself but it is the boss who disposes when he considers it is entirely in his interests.
Alan Shearer, whose own resolution as a professional was unwavering, was yesterday declaring the need for Rooney to make a pivotal re-evaluation of his place in the game. Naturally, given Shearer's essentially benign style of commentary, you had to get out a machete to hack your way to any sense of a career in crisis, but a certain reality has surely never been more apparent.
It is that he has more than a single wound to nurse these next few weeks and possibly months. He has to tend a fading belief in not who he once was but what he might be again. In January many considered the idea that Rooney's days at Old Trafford might be numbered was preposterous. Now it is beyond debate that Rooney's demeanour and the level of fitness he brought to a new season after the misadventure of his delayed appearance in the Euro finals have given Ferguson an increasingly jaundiced view of the attitudes and style of a player who came so close to defecting two years ago.
The truth is that, since the January eruption, only one thing has truly changed in the relationship of manager and player. It is the degree of the manager's dependence. He said as much in those programme notes which so tellingly enthused over the new man Van Persie's desire to play for United. The shorthand was legible enough.
It said that if a player wasn't with him, if he was not demonstrably single-minded and impassioned by the challenge, the future could be no better than extremely problematic.
Where the deepest of Rooney's problems reside is not so easy to say, but there has to be an increasing suspicion that it may well be within his own perception of where he is as a footballer required to prove that some of the earliest projections of his future were not excessively inflated.
There are, let's be honest, many days when the challenge appears not so much daunting as impossible. When you have lived so long with the idea, and had it told to you so often, that you are a great player, progressive evidence to the contrary is bound to be demoralising. Does this, you have to wonder, fuel at least some of the behaviour and the demeanour which is once again so clearly dismaying the ultimate enthusiast, Ferguson?
Ferguson invested in a young player of stunning ability who seemed to rejoice in his powers. Some of the most acute professional observers of the game, including Arsène Wenger, were matter of fact about the scale of his potential. He was so exuberant, so instinctive he might indeed have been one of the last of the great street footballers.
Now, at what should be the prime of his career, he comes into a season so out of sorts that his manager's patience snaps after just one game. It is an indictment quite as heavy as the one that came in the middle of last season. It is, you have to believe, not so much an alarm call as confirmation that Wayne Rooney has to heal more than one nasty wound. He has, at the age of 26, to reinvent himself still another time. He has to accept that he is facing what might to prove to be his endgame, the one that might well define, once and for all, a career that may have been pitched impossibly high.