Over the dying summer months the thought must have floated through Wayne Rooney's head that England duty is just not worth the candle. He would have kept this internal murmur to himself, of course, but there was a diminishing allure to being booed and playing badly at a World Cup in a rotten national side.
International retirement was never on the cards once the Manchester United fold had reclaimed him. Imagine the hot lava of vilification at Premier League grounds if the country's best player quit, at 24, citing the futility of wasting precious youthful days on a such a hopeless enterprise.
The question was not whether Rooney would flee back to United and lock the doors but whether he would disengage inside and submit to the mediocrity of this other life. The good news is that to surrender would require a downward shift in his nature too great to be undertaken by such a demonically competitive character. Without Rooney's artistry Jermain Defoe would not have left Wembley with a hat-trick in a 4-0 win that concealed England's defensive frailties. Each of the Tottenham striker's three goals against Bulgaria stemmed from Rooney's passing and spatial awareness.
Listless, sluggish and gloomy in South Africa, Rooney's brain was writing cheques his denuded body was unable to cash, but it was always an odds-on bet that the terror who struck 34 times for United in 2009-10 and scooped the PFA and football writers' footballer of the year awards would recover his old barnstorming self one happy day.
So hard is the enamel of his confidence that some may have expected him to take a summer holiday, sup a few ales and re-emerge from United's Carrington training complex ready to inflict instant havoc again. But the journey back has been a good deal more painful than that.
Against Bulgaria here he started the move that led to Defoe's third-minute goal – golf-chipping a pass to Ashley Cole, who bundled it eventually to Defoe – but was booed by the Wembley crowd for mis-controlling a ball on the touchline in front of Fabio Capello.
After those jeers filled the night air the whole audience seemed to pause to contemplate the enormity of that gesture, that derision. Was Rooney being heckled for his impotence in South Africa or out of lingering resentment at his rebuke to England's fans for barracking the team during the Algeria game in Cape Town? "Nice to see your home fans booing you — that's loyal supporters," Rooney complained in the eye of a TV camera – a challenge that clearly pierced the skin of the more sensitive souls in the Green Point Stadium.
Whatever the cause of this enduring crowd displeasure it seemed to strike Rooney hard as Capello clapped his encouragement. The team's most lethal presence tends not to need ego-massages but Capello gave him one anyway in the build-up to this first Euro 2012 qualifier, in which Rooney dropped off the front line and foraged in advanced midfield circles, which, in fairness to Capello, he had been authorised to do, to loosen the binds of 4-4-2.
"I monitored him during the last game he played, against West Ham. He's good, he's back and I'm happy because he scored a goal," Capello said. "Rooney runs a lot around the pitch, he's free to move where he decides to go. Rooney will play in style."
The captain, Steven Gerrard, also spoke of "the Rooney style" but was at a loss to explain his fellow Merseysider's torpor this summer. "I don't know. It's difficult to say. You'd have to ask Wayne why it didn't happen," Gerrard said. "He did have an injury going into the tournament but only he can answer that."
Rooney's penalty against West Ham was his first competitive goal since March and he has still not located the net for England since the 5-1 win over Croatia here a year ago on Thursday. Eleven international outings have now passed. In four, in South Africa, he was supposed to present his credentials as a World Cup aristocrat. At least Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi failed to make that leap with him.
On his 66th England appearance Rooney used the freedom to roam granted to him by Capello to hone his passing and movement. Four minutes after the interval he forced Bulgaria's Nikolay Mihaylov into an acrobatic save with a subtle chip and then stroked two passes to Defoe for him to complete his hat-trick. In this mode Rooney was no longer the talisman centre-forward but something closer to a young Paul Scholes, probing and prodding behind a fellow striker.
His chip dragged the Wembley hardcore back from hostility towards devotion, which is what they always felt before his shadow turned up in Rustenburg and the crowd goaded him in Cape Town. Rooney has yet to reclaim the status of house gladiator but was not born to chase the adulation of strangers. It was enough, in this fresh start (chapter 682), that he regained some of his old rhythm and looked happy to be wearing an England shirt again.
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