A few weeks ago, various journalists and fans were discussing on Twitter whether Wayne Rooney had fulfilled the potential he showed as a teenager both at Everton and United. His talent was showcased on the international scene nearly eight years ago at Euro 2004 and reaffirmed that he was one of the hottest prospects in world football. And yet, having played a crucial and somewhat unsung role in what looks like being a successful season for Man United, he seems to be misunderstood and underappreciated.
He was of course an angry bundle of energy, enthusiasm and fearlessness aided by the fact he was a boy in the body of a slightly more mature young man. Excelling in most of the important areas that any good attacking player should, it seemed that Rooney, coupled with a move to United, was on the perfect trajectory to become a world-beater.
The problem facing Rooney was that he was doomed if he did and doomed if he didn't. His rashness and temper meant that whilst he was driven and direct on the pitch, moments of uncontrollable madness got heavily criticised. The press got on his back, criticising him for not playing maturely. And yet, the now more mature and in-control Rooney is criticised for being too sensible, allegedly the spark and unpredictability from his game his disappeared. He can't win.
Rooney's somewhat fallen victim to his own unselfishness. The fact he's so able to perform admirably in various roles has lead to inconsistent use at United over the past two seasons. As a striker, his most prolific and arguably best campaign was in 2009/10 as an out-and-out forward. That was infamously followed by a transfer request as he grew frustrated at the lack of quality joining the club. Ironically, since that somewhat awkward period, Rooney's had to fill roles that seemingly should have been filled by signings.
The damage done by the transfer request is somewhat unknown. The fans are certainly more impatient with him and maybe the staff are too. United's vociferous but accurate fanzine, Red Issue, have stated numerous times that Rooney's relationship with Fergie is more strained than it ever has been (with a recent booze-up before Christmas taking it to an all time low). Plenty of fans believe he's playing without passion and as if he doesn't really care because of all that's gone on but that may be pretty inaccurate.
Whether fans now have pre-determined opinions of Rooney because of what happened is unknown but he's been a key cog in the United machine this season. With the exception of the now more neutral Gary Neville (who dedicated a whole five minutes of TV analysis to Rooney), praise hasn't been particularly forthcoming for Rooney. Rightly so, Carrick, Evans, Valencia and others have received spurts of overwhelming positive column inches and tweets but Rooney, who's maybe been as consistent as anyone, hasn't.
It's been somewhat unfortunate for Rooney that Van Persie's had such an extraordinary season. Rooney's record in terms of goals and assists isn't far off Robin's - a goal every 109 minutes versus a goal every 106 minutes. In any other season, Rooney's record in front of goal would be competitive for the top scorer spot in the league. Despite the fact many have been penalties, all these goals have come with him playing in a predominantly deeper role, letting Welbeck and Hernandez both take the role of the main striker.
There aren't stats that conclusively depict work-rate or self-sacrifice but if there were, Rooney would be shown to be a top performer in said categories. Where touch and pass have let him down this season; tackle, block, intercept and clear have come to the fore. Non-defenders who excel in this area naturally tend not to get the credit they deserve (e.g. Carrick), the unsung heroes of the team.
Rooney's contributions in these areas become even more important when one remembers the injuries we've had the number of goals we were conceding early in the season. You could pick almost any game this season and find countless examples of Rooney making headed clearances, chasing back, making a block on the edge of the area... etc.
The game that Gary Neville was particularly keen to highlight was Everton away at the end of October - a fixture that came a month into a 12 week league goalscoring dry spell for Rooney. Asked to play very much as a midfielder, Rooney rarely ventured into Everton's penalty area, keen to hold his position in the middle of the pitch. In what was a flat performance, Rooney's tactical discipline was crucial to United getting three points.
Everton away's performance is indicative of Rooney's season; less of the attacking flair, less of the chip-shot attempts, less of the surging runs, and certainly less of the indiscipline. Whether he's become too tame or is being asked to play in a role that doesn't get the most out of him, his sacrifice for the sake of the team should not go unnoticed. Few players could completely change their game the way he's had to and still prove to be important. One can only wonder how many league goals he'd have had he not have to drop deep so many times.
The assumption with Rooney though is that he has to do something special to remind people of his talent - the overhead kick against City or a hat-trick at Bolton for example. Has he truly fulfilled the potential he once showed? Potentially, but not necessarily in the way people expected. There's no doubt he's a better and more all-rounded footballer but in the age of Ronaldo and Messi, expectations are forever high. Certainly, he's a much better player than he gets credit for but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being a bit disappointed that he now plays as if he's had the footballing equivalent of a speed limiter put on him.
Should United go on to be crowned champions, praise will rightly go to other players before Rooney but at times, he's been as vital as anyone. Not for his goals should he be revered - other players have scored more match-winning goals than him - but for his everything else. Used in a variety of roles, he's adapted every time and performed to a consistently good standard (not that writing this after the Wigan fiasco helps his cause).
On Fergie's 'to-do' list this summer should be finding a foil for Rooney - what he's done this season is good but he's capable of better, he needs unleashing again - to score goals and not have to worry about defending. That said, I'm not convinced United fans realise how lucky we are to have someone of his quality and selflessness in our side.