Once a blue, always a red

WHILE AT Everton, Wayne Rooney infamously stated 'once a Blue, always a Blue'. It was a case of a young lad thinking with his heart but in football, success invariably engenders greater loyalty in players than emotion.

Which is why, with the in-form striker pledging long-term allegiance to Manchester United this week, there is more credibility to the claim.

Everton were a team sitting fourth bottom of the English Premier in the summer of 2004 when he opted for something beyond his boyhood leanings. Manchester United are reigning domestic and European champions and, given the quality in the squad as well as the potential for development, their glories are not expected to be fleeting. Why would he want to move on?

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Having just pitched in with his fifth goal in five games for the Old Trafford side, Rooney was complicit in the midweek 3-0 undermining of Celtic.

Talking easily afterwards, the maturer personality reflected his growth as a player. When he signed him four years ago for 27m, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed to have captured "the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years" and while few refuted his potential, the jury has been out on his fulfilment of that. Even as recently as the start to the present campaign, when he went six games without a goal for United. Those matches included draws at home to Newcastle in the league and an impotent showing at Old Trafford against Champions League Group E rivals Villarreal. There was also a draw with Chelsea and defeat to Liverpool. It prompted more musings about his ability to deliver in the big games.

"I didn't bother about that," Rooney insisted with a smile and a shrug, a grounded guy willing to treat triumph and disaster the same. "I am just at the start of my fifth season at Manchester United. I'm not far away from scoring 100 goals for the club (he is currently on 82] and if I can get to that 100 mark this season – and I believe I can – then that's 20 goals a season for United, which for any forward is a great record."

For the time being, though, the critics have been silenced and he is turning it on for club and country. In the past month, as well as the five goals in six starts for United, he has recorded four in two outings for England – a healthy return from a player who now has the bit between his teeth.

"The end of last season was probably the highlight of my career," he admitted. "But if I can keep on playing like I am now and we keep on winning trophies then this season could also be right up there." Few would rubbish such claims given the magnificent United form of late, which combines individual genius with a collective might.

If he can maintain his current levels of performance throughout the campaign, he has every right to his belief he can hit his own personal targets as well as help his club emulate previous feats.

"I can see myself staying here for a long time," said the 23-year-old Croxteth lad. "I love playing here. I am just 30 minutes away from all my family.

"I couldn't ever see myself playing for a foreign team. I love England and I love being close to my family. To be honest, I don't really like it when I go down to London. I am a Northern lad. I'd like to think that I can stay here, at United, for the rest of my career."

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His enthusiasm for the status quo is a perfect antidote to the huffiness of his attacking cohort, Cristiano Ronaldo. In the summer he became the living proof that Manchester United, unlike all but a sprinkling of others, is not a selling club. Linked with Real Madrid thanks to a scintillating season, although the move failed to materialise the speculation has left the lightning quick and tricky feet of the talismanic Portuguese star feeling more than a little itchy.

But Rooney is the kind of disciplined individual his mentors love. Although there have been front as well as back-page headlines, he seems to have screwed the nut. Football matters more than dodgy dalliances, it seems.

Even when he broke into the Everton first team as a 16-year-old, he still enjoyed a kickabout with his school mates, while this summer – having put all the seedier tabloid revelations behind them – he married his childhood sweetheart, Colleen McLoughlin, and is happier than ever.

Now there is the pleasure of producing goals in one of the most forward-focused Manchester United line-ups in years and he is willing to adhere to the Ferguson work doctrine to ensure he stays in the team.

"I have a good relationship with the fans. I think they appreciate players who give their all for the team. That is what I try to do.

"The most goals I've scored in a season is 23. It would be nice to beat that. But, no, I don't think I could manage what Cristiano (Ronaldo] did last season, scoring 42 goals!"

He could get closer, though, thanks to the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov. He missed the early part of United's season but since switching White Hart Lane for Old Trafford, the former Spurs man has proved a willing and able accomplice to Rooney. It may have taken a couple of games for things to click but the relationship has morphed into a fruitful one.

"Dimitar is a great player. He has a fantastic touch and a great awareness. He creates space for the other players around him which is obviously good for myself. He is doing really well for me."

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But it is a two-way thing. Rooney is another powerhouse, whose touch and movement make him a virtual apparition for those poor mites tasked with marking him, while his workrate and team ethic render him a virtue to his colleagues. And while there may be a limit to the goals he will net, his eye for a pass and explosive play will help others rattle in plenty.

Since gelling with his Liverpudlian strike partner, 30m Berbatov has scored five goals in the past five matches, and the side is moving on up through the gears and showing signs that the lead Chelsea and Liverpool currently enjoy could be pegged back.

If Manchester United do manage to overhaul them and retain the Premier League crown, it will take them equal with rivals Liverpool in the all-time list, another European Cup would take them to within one of establishing parity in those realms as well. So while Everton fans may still bemoan Rooney's declaration of devotion and subsequent departure four years ago, that piece of red devilment would surely appeal.