After a year to forget, Wayne Rooney is at his best and smiling again

It was Wayne Rooney's general demeanour that gave him away.

After a year to forget, Wayne Rooney is at his best and smiling again There was genuine enthusiasm as he considered the crop of bright young things that have thrilled at Manchester United already this season, a chuckle as he delivered a mock self-admonishment for chipping against a post during Sunday's rout of Arsenal, and even a quip about having to spend more time in front of the mirror these days inspecting his recent hair transplant. Was he feeling a lot more content with life these days? "I'm in a happy place, yes, both on and off the pitch," he offered. Club and country will relish having him back.

The England striker breezed through his media duties at the national team's Hertfordshire retreat on Tuesday as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Where everything about 2010 had rather haunted Rooney, from the injury suffered in the spring to an anaemic World Cup and personal turmoil on and off the field at Old Trafford, then he is refreshed and resurgent again.

It is a year since details of his private life were plastered all over the front pages, with his brief yet hugely controversial dalliance with Manchester City still to come. Now, fresh from a summer spent alongside his family and with his form at United jaw-dropping, he sounds like a changed man.

There have been five goals in three league games to date, a tally he did not reach last term until his memorable bicycle kick settled the Manchester derby in mid-February. The magnificence of his free-kicks against Arsenal on Sunday took the breath away, with the 25-year-old established now as a fulcrum in a young side.

The likes of Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have excelled this term, with Ashley Young, who will start alongside Rooney against Bulgaria in Sofia on Friday, also relishing new surroundings. Sir Alex Ferguson has reinvigorated his team on the quiet leaving Rooney, who had publicly questioned this team's ambition when courting a move to City, admitting in hindsight the genius of the manager's transfer policy.

"They all do a bit more running as well, and that helps you," said the forward of the youngsters who could form the nucleus of club and national sides in the years to come. "When you see the average age on Sunday was 23, that is great for the future and hopefully can bring us more success.

"It's what I wanted, yes, even if what I did [when indicating a desire to leave for City last October] was wrong. Of course I'm thankful I stayed and signed. I said after signing the contract that I'd made a mistake, and that I owed the fans performances and goals for what had happened. For me, staying was the best decision I've made in my football career.

"What the younger lads are doing is not down to me, but to their own ability. I'm just trying to play the same – if I see something I'll still speak up if I think it's wrong, whether it's to a young or an older player – but the lads who went out on loan have come back much better players, not just in terms of their ability but tactically too. Now there is a lot of movement and energy in the side, and that helps me get in more space and influence the game. That is what I seem to be doing."

The revival is not born of laborious pre-season preparations. Rather, the striker has benefited from a complete break from the prescribed routine. Back in May, United's medical staff provided him with a meticulously constructed summer programme. "But I deliberately left it behind," admitted Rooney.

"I honestly didn't lift any weights, go to the gym, even run. Nothing." Yet, having watched his diet, he returned from family holidays in the Caribbean and south of France no more than "a couple of kilos" over his fighting weight. Even Ferguson might just forgive him that rebellious streak in the wake of the form he has already exhibited this term.

The manager will be thrilled to see Rooney restored to his effervescent best after the traumas of last year. The player himself points to a date rather than a moment where his fortunes turned. "New Year's Day," he said. "I was quite happy to put 2010 behind me and looking forward to starting again."

He scored after three minutes that afternoon, against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns, for his first club goal in open play in nine months. "It'd been tough. It's hard when you know you can do things but, when you try them, they don't come off. It was frustrating. Because of my character it could have been quite easy to lose confidence in myself and my ability to come back to my best.

"But I saw people questioning me and, in a way, it helped. You want to prove them wrong and that you can get back to your best. After that goal on New Year's Day, I was confident I could help the team. And I feel good now. There have been times in the past when I have been more aggressive on the pitch and gone in for silly challenges, but I'm not really doing that any more. I'm feeling more relaxed out there. Sometimes it's hard to control but, if you stay more controlled, your performances will certainly be better."

It may be tempting fate to suggest the angry young man who occasionally marred even his own goal celebrations, most notably at Upton Park back in April, has been consigned to history but it appears the penny has dropped. There is very little angst to Rooney's play at present and England, like United, will gain as a result. This team can surely only thrive if their striker remains in a happy place.

Powered by article was written by Dominic Fifield, for The Guardian on Tuesday 30th August 2011 22.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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