Rooney Must Lead Them

Magnus knows what the key to Manchester United’s resurgence will be.

“Three goals, three points and one step closer to qualifying”, Wayne Rooney said Tuesday night, reflecting on a rather easy 3-0 home win over Copenhagen in the Champions League. To be fair, the Danes put up a decent fight for most of the first half, until the indomitable Paul Scholes scored after 38 minutes. From there on out, the only question was whether United would better the scoreline from the last time we played a Danish team in the Champions League – United beat Brondby 6-2 and 5-0 on our way to winning the Treble in the 1998-99 season. As it turns out, two more goals from John O’Shea and Kieran Richardson in the second half was all we got, but there could have been many more.

Despite having had a fine start to the season, Louis Saha still can’t hit a barn door if one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He should have had a hat-trick yesterday, having enjoyed the fruits of Wayne Rooney’s unselfishness. On several occasions, Rooney, who’s desperate to score himself after nine games for club and country without a goal to his name, passed the ball to Saha when he felt the Frenchman had a better chance to score. This underlined an emerging feature of the Boy Wonder’s game – a growing willingness to play not only for himself, but for his teammates, for the greater good of the team and of the club.

In America, it was always said of a certain Michael Jordan that even though he was outrageously talented, he didn’t become a great player until he gave up the theatrics of his youth in order to sacrifice himself for the team. When that sense of responsibility and maturity clicks for Rooney, I feel United are in for a ride.

In young Wayne we have not only one of the world’s best players, but perhaps also our team’s leader, our talisman of the future. For the big story yesterday, and one that could prove pivotal in the months and years ahead – Wayne Rooney, seven days short of his 21st birthday, was selected by Ferguson to captain the Reds in the absence of Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. Most of the fans see him as a future United captain, but none of us expected him to move up the pecking order so quickly. Except Rooney himself, perhaps. He has an almost other-wordly assuredness about him – a certain cockiness that marks him out from even the most accomplished of players.

Sir Alex Ferguson has already taken notice of this fact. Never has the manager put so much faith into the hands of one so young. Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane all became United captains in their late twenties, or, as in the case of our present captain, Gary Neville, in his early thirties. When Gary retires in a few years, Wayne will still be in the beginning of his career, in his early twenties – and, as Ferguson seems to believe, ready to lead our beloved Reds to even greater heights.

He’s has been criticized by anyone and everyone associated with football over the past months for his lack of form, but Rooney’s simply gone about his business – even staying late to work on his game after the rest of the squad went home from practice. This belies an important facet to his game – a steely determination more reminiscent of a street boxer than a multimillionaire modern footballer. He hasn’t let any of the background noise affect him – he knew he’d eventually come good and that soon enough he’d be back to his best.

And now that he is – he was man of the match both against Wigan last weekend and against Copenhagen on Tuesday – it’s like United have a renewed spring in their step, a belief that they’ll win every game including this weekend against Liverpool. The old swagger of the late nineties and early noughties is back. Scholes, Giggs, Solskjaer and Neville are all playing as if they were five or six years younger, as if they were enjoying a second summer after a long, exhausting winter. The new additions – Ronaldo, Smith, Heinze, Vidic, Ferdinand, et al – are playing with a purpose and a drive that we haven’t ever seen from them. Led by young Wayne, there is every chance that United will be there or thereabouts when the time to collect the silverware arrives at the end of the season.

So even if Gary Neville is our captain, it is young Wayne Rooney that is now our de facto leader on the pitch. It is him the players look to for inspiration, him that Alex Ferguson looks to for intervention, and him the fans look to for salvation.

Captain future? Captain now.