A calmer, more mature Rooney has evaded disciplinary problems to help put his side on the verge of their 20th title
Wayne Rooney has not been booked in the Premier League all season. Some observers of an always volatile operator may require independent verification of that. Constantly working on the margins, the "edge" as Sir Alex Ferguson calls it, Rooney has, of course, been sent off this term – for England, against Montenegro in October. But his perfect disciplinary record in a highly physical league of card‑happy referees is emblematic of how the prime factor in Manchester United's hopes of silverware is registering another impressive campaign, possibly his best ever, as he steps on to the Eastlands turf on Monday night for the 163rd encounter with Manchester City.
The equation is well known by now. Ferguson's men are three points ahead of Roberto Mancini's, so a win for United virtually kills the Blues' title hopes with two games remaining. Rooney, a clutch scorer, is looking to add to 14 goals in his past 14 league outings and City are well aware of the menace they hope to control in the most seismic derby yet.
Vincent Kompany, their captain, says: "It's not just about the two of us but it's nice to play against those top players. He has all the qualities of the top strikers – he is quick, powerful and is a goalscorer. He is also a leader for his team and that makes him a special player. That makes it so much more enjoyable for me. I don't think things should come easy. If it's difficult, that makes winning even better."
These are fine words and deserved for a player who can be a one‑man soap opera on and off the field. The episodes usually consist of scintillating football interspersed with occasional scrapes with referees and Ferguson. The suspicion remains that since Rooney's transfer demand in October 2010 and his cited motive, that United did not match his ambition, the manager watches for early signs of his focus waning. Then Ferguson jumps on him.
The cynical view was that when the saga ended with Rooney signing a lucrative new contract, it was all a bargaining ploy. His star quality and commercial appeal, is highlighted by data released on Sunday which shows more shirts have been sold with Rooney's name on the back than any other player in Premier League history, ahead of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
"We first started producing Rooney's official player identity in 2002 after he made his professional debut with Everton at the age of 16," says Rob Thayne, Sporting iD's global sales and marketing director. "We then had to expand that production greatly following his move to Manchester United in the summer of 2004, reflecting his burgeoning talent. But he truly went into a league of his own in 2007 when Ruud van Nistelrooy vacated the Manchester United No10. That's the shirt of one of Wayne's heroes, Denis Law, and of course 10 is the fabled number of Pelé and Diego Maradona. Add to that Rooney's incredible performances and popularity and it's no surprise that there's such global demand by fans for his name, and it's a demand that shows no sign of abating."
Eighteen months since his transfer request he remains United's lone world‑class performer and there is a strong case that he alone carries the club's hopes of a 20th championship. His numbers are as follows: he has 36 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions, with the league count at 26. This equals his best from two seasons ago, with three games to go. United's next highest scorers in the league, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck, have 19 between them.
A hint that Rooney's relationship with Ferguson is complex came when he was dropped for the game with Blackburn Rovers following a Boxing Day dinner. Earlier this month he was hauled off during the 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic and after a 4-0 win against Aston Villa at Old Trafford in United's next match, in which he scored twice, the manager said: "He was careless. Wayne has to play on the edge of a game, when it is really close and competitive. When the game gets to that casual bit, he is worse than the rest of them." Further illustration of Rooney's improved temperament – or maturity – came in his response. "It was nice to score two goals but I didn't think my performance was good enough," he said.
At 26 Rooney is on course to break Bobby Charlton's club record of 249 goals, with the double in the 4-4 draw with Everton taking him to 180. Alan Shearer, the Premier League's all-time highest scorer with 260, believes Rooney can overtake him too. "I really think Wayne could challenge that 260-goal mark," he says. "If he continues in the rich goalscoring form he's in right now, he'll get close. Wayne hasn't always looked like a natural goalscorer but then I struggled for regular goals in the first few years of my career too and he's still only 26. If he can steer clear of serious injuries for the next few years, he's definitely got a chance."
Shearer's point about Rooney's improving return is seen in his season-by-season league count. In the debut year of 2002-03 he managed six in 33 appearances for Everton, then nine in 34 the following term. After joining United in August 2004 Rooney's sequence went 11 in 29, 16 (36), 14 (35), 12 (27), 12 (30), 26 (32) and 11 in 28 during last season's injury-hit campaign.
Rooney's value can also be seen in his burgeoning partnership with Welbeck who is beginning to blossom alongside him. Starting in 20 league outings, the pair have been in the winning team 17 times: an 85% rate. Ferguson's other striking combinations have managed nine victories in 15, a significant drop to 60%.
Welbeck scored a fine second against Everton in an effervescent display in tandem with Rooney and Ferguson says of them: "With Danny being fit again and playing consistently, he's developed better. Last week we saw something special. I know there was a lot of reference to the [Dwight] Yorke and [Andy] Cole thing and there are similarities to that. I thought Welbeck's movement was fantastic. He did really well. Wayne is 26 now and Danny is 21. I would think over the next few years it can only get better. I hope so."
Second in both the PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year to Robin van Persie, Rooney may point to another factor beyond the calmer on-field disposition for his stellar performance. United were knocked out of the Europa League in mid-March. If he stays fit until mid-May, Rooney will have played seven fewer games than last year from February onwards. With no Champions League final at Wembley to drain mental and physical resources he will surely be fresh by the time he is able to represent England against Ukraine in his country's third game of Euro 2012 on 19 June.
Before then only Monday's title showdown will be in Rooney's mind. "It's great to play against him," says Kompany. "Hopefully we will be playing against each other for a long time because it's always a great battle. He is one of the best strikers in the world, no doubt about that."Under the lights at the Etihad Stadium Rooney hopes to show this yet again and all but seal another crown for United.