The expression on Wayne Rooney’s face was bordering on embarrassment. He shifted on his feet a little. Then he blew out his cheeks, shook his head and, in four words, tried to sum up the lingering sense of awkwardness. “How wrong was I?” he said, and no one listening to him could have been mistaken: this was a statement rather than a question.
These are the moments when Rooney can look back at the troubled times last autumn and shudder when he thinks of the potential glories he might have missed had he not pulled himself back from leaving Manchester United – or, to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson’s line, realised that the cow in the next field might not be any better than the cow he already milked.
“Big trouble” are the words Patrice Evra uses to recall that chilly October night against Bursaspor when Rooney went public with his grievances and United’s supporters demonised the Liverpudlian with spiteful banners (“Coleen forgave you, Wayne, we won’t” and “Who’s the whore now, Wayne?”). Evra remembers “everyone was criticising Manchester United that night, everyone was saying it was the end of the empire”.
That was Rooney’s fault, the nadir of a season that has endured some excruciating lows to go alongside the exhilarating highs that culminated in Schalke being out?passed, out?thought, outfought and eventually outclassed in Gelsenkirchen. It has been a wild graph of ups and downs but, as Rooney boarded flight TK3671 from Dortmund to Manchester on Wednesday, this was a man contemplating an uncommon form of job satisfaction and just glad – relieved, if we are being truthful – that he was given the opportunity to change his mind.
“I made a mistake,” he volunteered and, up close, you could detect he felt uncomfortable with all the self-analysis – maybe even a little foolish. “You know, when I look back at it now, I’ll say it again, how wrong was I? I’m willing to admit that. I’ve apologised and ever since then I have wanted to try to prove myself again to the fans. I feel I am doing that now.”
Everything is coming together. Rooney had doubted the club’s transfer policy after a summer in which they had recruited the unheralded Javier Hernández, Chris Smalling and, most perplexing of all, Bébé. Now the team he suspected would fall short have authentic hope of following up the near-certainty of a record 19th league title with the third European Cup of Ferguson’s reign.
Rooney has seen enough of Hernández to proclaim him as “the buy of the century” and, after looking like someone who was falling out of love with the sport as the leaves started falling from the trees, the man United’s supporters serenade as “the white Pelé” has scored 12 times in the 21 games since the turn of the year.
“I’m delighted with my form at the minute and I’m grateful to the fans for supporting me through it [his transfer demands],” he said, nursing a cup of coffee and noticeably relaxed compared with the player who had concluded that Old Trafford was a place where his career would stagnate rather than flourish. “I hope I’ve repaid the fans now. I certainly feel vindicated [for changing my mind]. It’s going to be a great end to the season if we can get to Wembley and win a Champions League final as well as the league.”
It has been a long road to redemption and everything was so fraught at one stage there will always be some United supporters who consider there is a difference between being a great football player and a great football man. Yet the volume has been turned down on the conspiracy theorists who suspected United had tied Rooney to a new contract purely to hike his transfer price in the summer. “I’m 100% committed to this club,” the player said, and this time he deliberately made eye contact.
Rooney spent much of his spare time in Gelsenkirchen telling the 280,000 followers he has recruited in his first week on Twitter of his love for the Beatles and the Stereophonics, answering fans’ questions and swapping the kind of lovey-dovey messages with his wife, Coleen, that suggests he is repairing the damage that has been done in his private life.
The mere fact that @wazzaroon08 has felt comfortable enough to register on the social network site where supporters can tell him exactly what they think – Darron Gibson was hounded off within hours this week – is another reason in itself to consider he is putting the traumas of 2010, his annus horribilis, behind him.
At the same time there is clear evidence that his relationship with Ferguson is fully healed, from the photographs of them braying with laughter during training at the Veltins Arena on Monday to the manager’s affectionate references to “Wazza” in his post?match interviews.
“It’s been a lot different [in the second half of the season],” Rooney said. “I am a lot happier in my life, a lot happier with the way I’m playing. It’s almost been like having to settle down again and I’ve done that now.”
The lesson of history is that controversies will always attach themselves to Rooney for as long as he is playing. But for now at least Wayne’s world, once again, feels like a happy place to be.