A year ago last Wednesday Wayne Rooney picked up the ankle injury in Munich that cast his career into shadow.
The anniversary doubtless played in his thoughts as his hat-trick against West Ham United completed a Manchester United comeback that was described by Sir Alex Ferguson as "a real championship performance", and Rooney celebrated by swearing into a television camera.
England's leading striker tends to reserve his strongest public statements for the TV lens thrust in his face. At the World Cup in South Africa he complained: "Nice to see your own fans booing you," after England's abysmal 0-0 draw with Algeria. Expletive-peppered exchanges with match officials have also featured. Sky – experts in corporate contrition after the Richard Keys/Andy Gray affair – apologised after Rooney had shouted "you fucking beauty" into living rooms. In a week when "respect" has returned to the moral agenda, the Football Association said they would investigate Rooney's contribution, but charges are thought to be unlikely.
The more lasting impact of United's 4-2 victory is that it could spell doom for the other title challengers.
Two-nil down to a pair of West Ham penalties at the interval, United sent on the heavy mob and scored four times in 19 minutes. Dimitar Berbatov rolled his socks down and his sleeves up, dazzling a crowd who could sense the way this one was going from the moment Rooney curled in a free-kick and then held the ball up in the West Ham penalty area, turned and found a corner for his 100th Premier League goal in a United shirt.
With brutal precision United punished West Ham for their temerity in giving the league leaders a fright with two Mark Noble spot-kicks. Rooney's own penalty put United in front for the first time, then Javier Hernández, a striker replacing a left-back (Patrice Evra) at half-time, delivered the coup de grace while West Ham fans contemplated a return to the relegation zone.
Seven points clear of Arsenal now after they could only draw at home to Blackburn, United adore a fightback, especially here in London. A decade ago they were 3-0 down at half-time at Spurs and won 5-3. These victories are worth far more than wins achieved at a canter. They frighten the other title contenders, for starters, and send the team home full of gung ho. They also release a rhetorical torrent as the coaching staff use them to affirm the club's inner character to players and fans.
Ferguson seized this opportunity. "Going for it is important for our club. We played like champions," he said. "We kept our head up, we didn't lose faith in our own ability and today was a great, great boost to us in that respect. We've got four home games, three away. As we showed in the second half – go and play. That's the licence we always give them – and they did."
Politically invaluable, this counter-surge also strengthened United's Champions League challenge, which resumes against Chelsea in Wednesday's quarter-final at Stamford Bridge. Berbatov, Hernández and Nani started on the bench and will be fresh for the next London trip. In midfield Ferguson was able to win away from home with the unconvincing trio of Park Ji-sung, Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick.
Gibson, an honest toiler who is picked partly for his shooting ability, is not a favourite of United fans, who think he lacks the talent of an Old Trafford regular; and Park had one of those days when he buzzes around to no discernible effect. At the back, Chris Smalling was shaky under the bouncing ball and Nemanja Vidic was in one of his Big Daddy moods: the wrestler, that is, not the team patriarch.
Vidic is a candidate for player of the year, but every now and then he displays his discomfort by hauling opponents down by the shirt or tripping them as they endeavour to jink past him. In this mode he conceded West Ham's second penalty and was fortunate not to be sent off for two subsequent offences. Smalling and Vidic will require more composure against Chelsea. In this game, the attackers, Rooney especially, saved them from a night in the doghouse.
"[Antonio] Valencia had them on toast, really; he's so confident on the ball and they couldn't get it off him," Ferguson said. "But in the second-half when Chicharito [Hernández] came on he gave us that blinding pace – and he's threatening all the time behind. So it meant they were going right back towards their box, which gave us space to operate in."
After two league wins to steady the heart in the wake of defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool, United are now supremely well-placed to stay where Ferguson hopes his horse (What A Friend) will finish in Saturday's Grand National: in front. For a year now Rooney has been a spectre of his young self. His bicycle kick in the Manchester derby was exhilarating and there has been the odd barnstorming burst, but overall the old brilliance has eluded him.
Even here, we crows on the wire were lamenting his bluntness. Then the goals poured in. In these moments of release he drops the diplomatic pretence and says what he really feels to the nearest listener. Sometimes he mistakes a cameraman for a priest.
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