The Cristiano Ronaldo show, co-starring Wayne Rooney, yielded almighty profit for its producers. Manchester United, indeed, won the Premier League thrice, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup in a halcyonic three-season period from 2006/07.
While Sir Alex Ferguson’s script was tailor-made for its lead act, however, it impeded his aide-de-camp. Sure, Rooney made a handsome contribution to the aforementioned honours, but it was apparent that, on an individual level, his enormous potential was not being wholly exploited.
The England forward was not United’s go-to man. He was often deployed in an unflattering role on the wing. He was considered a very good player, one of the best in the Premier League, not a great player, one of the best in the world.
Ferguson, though, is a director nonpareil. He moulded the key to prosperity with Ronaldo and Rooney cohabiting his team, and he was confident he knew the secret to success upon the then-reigning FIFA World Player’s world-record £80m transfer to Real Madrid last July. So, when the sceptics ridiculed United’s modest close-season outlay – reportedly a combined £19m on an erratic French prospect, an Ecuadorian who had failed to make the grade at Villarreal, and an English striker whose pomp was, perhaps irrecoverably, years behind him – the worldly, intractable Scot refused to panic.
His intention had never been to remedy Ronaldo’s decampment by spending mega-money on a mega-star. Ferguson, by contrast, planned to compensate for the loss by promoting Rooney from lead helper to headliner, by transforming him from a deep-lying forward/part-time wide man into an out-an-out striker.
My favourite position is playing forward. As a forward I feel I can influence the game a lot more. Thankfully the manager has played me there all season.
It is a role in which the former Everton player has electrified. Five-and-a-half months into the 2009/10 Premier League, Rooney proudly stands on 20 goals from just 23 appearances – eight more than he managed in both of the entire two previous seasons, four more than his record haul in a league campaign, one more than the total with which the 2008/09 competition’s leading marksman, Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka, finished, and five more than his nearest challenges on the scoring chart this term.
Rooney’s prolificacy has been particularly bewildering since a 1-0 loss to Chelsea in November left the reigning champions five points behind their table-topping opponents in the title race. Largely thanks to the 24-year-old’s 13 goals in his last 11 outings, indeed, United trail the Blues by only two points with 14 rounds to go.
"My favourite position is playing forward," Rooney explained. "I’ve been used out wide or in midfield now and again in the past, but as a forward I feel I can influence the game a lot more. Thankfully the manager has played me there all season. I've started scoring more goals inside the six-yard box, which I've not really done a lot in previous years.”
And while Rooney innately has several of the characteristics required to lead the line, the abnormally dedicated No10 has put in the hours in a bid to evolve into what is, habitually, the function of a No9. “I’ve been working on trying to improve my movement in the box and creating space to get my shot off. It's all starting to pay off,” he said.
"We do shooting practice with the team, but then after the session I’ll go and work on things myself. Sometimes people don’t realise how hard it is to practice every day. It’s hard to constantly put the work in to improve your game. But if you want to get the rewards from it, you have to do it. The best players always practice to get better.”
After watching Rooney terrorise Arsenal in a 3-1 United conquest last time out, effectively receding the Premier League title race into a two-team affair in the process, Ferguson heaped praise on the Croxteth native. “Wayne was unbelievable,” enthused the 68-year-old. “Arsenal just couldn’t handle him. He was world-class today, there’s absolutely no doubt. He turned the defenders so many times, it was a really top performance.
“If he continues this way he could get to 30 goals quite easily. The main reason he is scoring more goals is because he is in the right place at the right time. That's what goalscorers do. Wayne has become more aware of the penalty box too. Playing him in that direct role gives him an appetite to be in the box all the time. He has moments where he goes into other areas of the pitch, but I think he’s choosing those moments more maturely.
“I don't think he's become more selfish. I think he's developing his game the right way. He realises his main asset to us is being the main striker through the middle, threatening all the time. He's getting the rewards for that. He's in such great form that there's nobody really matching him (in England) at the moment.”
Ryan Giggs concurs. The Welshman, moreover, feels that Rooney is close to breaking into the popularly-accepted three-player bracket of the world's best players, which comprises Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kak.
“He is getting nearer that group,” Giggs said of his United team-mate. “You have seen it for England and for us on the bigger stages. That is what all the top players do. The best thing is that Wayne is still developing. He is 24 and he is only going to get better.
“His appetite is strong and he is a great player to have in your team. Even if he is not playing well, he still causes problems for the other team. That is a very rare quality. Everyone knows what Wayne is like. He wants to be involved. He wants to set up the play and finish the moves. Sometimes you cannot do that but he has learnt to be patient.
“He believes he is going to create chances. He believes he will get them and he believes he is going to score goals. More often than not, he does. I know if I am putting the ball in the box, with his movement and bravery, Wayne is going to get on the end of things. He has taken his game to another level and has developed his game so that now he is a goalscorer as well as joining in with the overall play."
Rooney is singularly well-rounded. Immensely strong, unpredictable, a menacing dribbler, canny passer and, now, Grade-A marksman, he is a player coveted by a series of the sport’s most prestigious clubs, including reigning world champions Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose general manager Jorge Valdano recently hailed him as “extraordinary”. Ferguson, though, insists his main man is going nowhere.
“The boy’s very happy at the club,” said the United manager. “I know that, we’ve always known that. He’s very popular among the players, he couldn’t be a better lad really. He’s a really down to earth boy. He’ll not change because that’s the way he is.”
I hope we can win the title again this year. We’ve won the league the last three years and nobody has ever won it four times in a row. We want to create history.
Rooney added: "There’s always speculation and when other big teams are talking about you, it’s nice. But as I’ve said many times before, I’m a United player and I’m very happy here.
Rooney, who made Old Trafford his home in 2004, was a Manchester United great heading into the campaign. Having been freed from the restrictive shadow of Ronaldo, however, he has heightened his legend at an alarming rate. His target now is to fire the Red Devils to an unprecedented fourth straight – and record 19th overall - English top-flight crown,
“I hope we can win the title again this year,” Rooney said. “We’ve won the league the last three years and nobody has ever won it four times in a row. We want to create history.”
Realisation of that piece of history would vindicate Ferguson’s decision to hand the England forward the fat part in his United play. It would also enhance Rooney’s chances of gatecrashing this year’s footballing Oscars.