• Fine display makes striker favourite to lead side into new era
• Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa excel before Tuesday's derby
English football has long overblown the importance of the captain, but on a cold east London evening there was ultimately a sense that it was the performance of the man who filled the role for Manchester United more than their actual victory here that provided this most beleaguered of clubs with hope for better times ahead.
That much could be taken from David Moyes who, a week on from looking as pale as a distressed ghost after United's wretched defeat to Liverpool, had the glow of a man who knew he had done good in handing Wayne Rooney the responsibility of being United's skipper against West Ham in the absence of the suspended Nemanja Vidic and his deputy Patrice Evra. Evra was relegated to the substitutes' bench by his manager, most likely with an eye on Tuesday's Manchester derby.
This was not the first time Rooney had been United's captain but it was undeniably his most eye-catching display with the armband. The 28-year-old was a relentlessly threatening presence until he was replaced by Javier Hernández late on and scored both his side's goals, the first of which will be spoken about, and no doubt shown on television, for years to come.
For all the flak that has come Moyes's way this season – and there has been scope for plenty – his handling of Rooney has been impeccable, with the Scot transforming a disillusioned and out-of-form striker into a seemingly settled and once again lethal presence. With Vidic on his way to Internazionale in the summer and Evra also likely to depart, the way seems clear for Rooney to become United's full-time captain and, more importantly, standard-bearer of a new era at a club struggling to move on from its past. After this win, United's second in succession following their Champions League triumph over Olympiakos, Moyes stuck to the line that he will not make a decision on United's new captain until next season, but equally he gave plenty of indications that Rooney is the standout contender for the role.
"Wayne has led by example all season and he has maybe taken a wee bit of extra pride in wearing the armband and showing exactly what it means to him," said Moyes. "He wants to take responsibility and as a manager you always want players around who take responsibility.
"It's for Wayne to show [he can excel as captain]. You have to say that he has showed that already and he definitely showed that against West Ham as well."
In all senses, Rooney was the leader of a United side that performed here with a level of control, invention and purpose that has rarely been seen by the soon-to-be-deposed champions this season. Granted, the opposition were poor: West Ham mustered just one effort on target, an early header from Andy Carroll that forced David de Gea into a routine save. But United were better throughout and, in truth, should have left Upton Park with a more resounding victory.
Stationed alongside Michael Carrick in a makeshift backline, Phil Jones put in another assured centre-half display, while in front of him Darren Fletcher dictated play from central midfield with such measure that it is hard to believe he has only recently returned from a debilitating illness.
Alongside him Marouane Fellaini had arguably his best game in a United shirt, as did Juan Mata who, following the long-term injury sustained by Robin van Persie, was given the chance to come in from the cold of the left wing to his more favoured No10 role and subsequently shone. Taking his place was Shinji Kagawa, who also excelled. But ultimately all eyes were on the man in attack, United's captain and, yet again, saviour.
Those in attendance had barely made themselves comfortable when their breaths were taken away by a moment of stunning ingenuity. Collecting Ashley Young's lofted ball forward, Rooney gave James Tomkins the faintest of nudges before launching a 57-yard, right-footed volley towards goal.
The ball sailed into the clouds before coming back to earth and, with West Ham's goalkeeper Adrián having lost his senses and bearings, bounced once before landing in the net.
Sam Allardyce claimed the goal should not have stood because Rooney's nudge on Tomkins was a foul but even the West Ham manager admitted that what followed was a "brilliant piece of skill".
Rooney's second on 33 minutes was fully deserved but owed much to good fortune, with the striker in the right place at the right time to convert Mark Noble's poor clearance and score his 15th goal of the season. With that he moved ahead of Jack Rowley as United's third best all-time scorer, with 212 goals.
Next for United, then, is the derby and with Evra likely to return it will be interesting to see if Moyes keeps Rooney as captain. Doing so would certainly send out a message of moving on from the Ferguson era. After all, what better way for Moyes to say he is his own man than continuing to enhance the status of the player who his predecessor hung out to dry at the end of his reign. Indeed, his future may well depend on it.
Man of the match Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)