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Wayne Rooney on the wane but United must remember his dizzying highs

This article originally appeared on ESPN FC on Oct. 23 2015.

It was all rather solemn -- even a little sad -- seeing Wayne Rooney flop to the ground and apologetically stumble over the line, carrying the ball with him and ending the longest goal drought of his career.

Finally putting an end to a 1,000-minute wait for a league goal, there was a brief smile upon scoring in the 3-0 win against Sunderland in September and a nod to the boy who set him up -- Anthony Martial, the teenage superstar-in-the-making that Rooney once was.

Undoubtedly, Rooney would have rather beaten three defenders and then whacked in a thunderbolt, but such moments of wonder are rare now. The peak has gone and his touch is fading, along with his ability to settle big matches with brilliance.

Ahead of his testimonial to mark 12 years at Old Trafford on Wednesday, it's a good opportunity to revisit a time when Rooney did manage to stir the soul and force youngsters to go to the park and re-enact what the Manchester United striker had just performed.

Voted the best Premier League goal of all-time, Rooney's outrageous overhead kick to beat City at Old Trafford in February 2011 can now be seen as a precursor to what we're dealing with now. A poor attempt to control the ball and pass it short drew exasperated groans inside Old Trafford, but seconds later, he had leapt into the air to fire home an incredible volley past Joe Hart.

Rooney is still capable of such inspiration because he was lucky to be given a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but the unsure touches and negatives outweigh the positives these days.

A troublesome theme appeared in a documentary that promised to look at the man behind the goals -- football's great and good lined up to eulogise about Rooney. His calmness, maturity and level-headedness were praised -- but who, really, wants to see that? Have we forgotten what made him great? Rooney lived on the edge, terrorising defenders one minute and stamping on them the next. He was box-office talent; now he's B-movie.

He has become the elephant in the room at Manchester United. It's particularly galling that Louis van Gaal, the self-styled Iron Tulip -- and a man who literally tells his players he has the testicular fortitude to make big decisions -- continually shied away from the idea of dropping his captain. Rooney deserves a spell out of the side as he's not contributing enough, yet he seems to get a free pass. Why? He now faces a fight to convince Jose Mourinho to select him in attack, after United's new boss claimed he would never select him in midfield. But there's a new kid on the block, Marcus Rashford, who displays the same fearlessness of youth Rooney used to.

But those who shun the bigger picture for the here and now have forgotten just how incredible Rooney was, his peak coming in 2009-10 with a season that ended with a personal-best 34 goals.

"Milan Creates, Rooney Destroys," reflected Corriere dello Sport following Manchester United's 3-2 win against AC Milan in the San Siro in February of that year -- a Champions League round-of-16 tie the Italian side felt they controlled. But they lacked Rooney, a predator in his pomp, who scored two goals that helped settle the first leg in his side's favour. He was outstanding in Italy, buzzing all over the pitch, darting into space, dribbling with intent and hassling those who dared to take the ball away from him. It was vintage Rooney, a bulldog off the leash, always moving, always a threat.

"The English Phenomenon," CDS continued, echoing the sentiments from observers across Europe.

Don't let anybody tell you Rooney has had an unfulfilled career; he's England's leading scorer of all-time, a five-time Premier League winner, Champions League winner and probably -- providing he can limp over the line and score the five required to beat Sir Bobby Charlton to 250 -- the leading scorer in Manchester United history. He's captain of his country and captain of one of the world's biggest clubs. What more could he have done? It's difficult to understand why, but some suggest his talent warrants greater success, whether on a team level or personal. It's wise to look at his honours list again, in that case. There's demanding more, and there's being realistic and fair.

Most 16-year-old boys were playing video games and getting rejected by their crush when teen Rooney, a barrel-chested brute who had the world at his dainty feet, struck an incredible winner against Arsenal in 2002. Upon scoring that wonder goal against Arsene Wenger's men, Rooney biked it home and played with his mates on the streets of Croxteth, Liverpool. It adds to his legend, the street footballer humiliating professionals one minute and larking about with his mates the next.

Since his debut, he has averaged around 48 top-level, professional matches per season. Put yourself in his position and imagine, with all the physical and mental demands that come with it, playing 48 matches a season for England and Manchester United. It's only natural now, in his 15th professional campaign and 31 in October, his powers are dwindling. Time beats us all. He deserves criticism, sure, but with mitigation.

The world knew he was a special talent when he burst on to the scene with England, scoring four in four at Euro 2004. He confirmed his status as the most exciting teenager in the world with an incredible hat trick -- on his debut, no less -- for United against Fenerbahce, and from there, his catalogue of goals and explosive performances should be revered.

Perhaps less celebrated is his selflessness, shifting across positions in attack and sometimes midfield at his manager's request. Sure, he complained a few times but only because he backed himself to be the main man up front. While not in the same league as Cristiano Ronaldo in each players' respective pomp -- no bad thing, considering the latter is on another planet along with Lionel Messi -- Rooney still managed to dovetail beautifully with his Portuguese teammate, effective out wide when others took the limelight up top.

Last season, he was sent to central midfield, a decision so ludicrous it ranked up there with Phil Jones on corners. But Rooney still showed the odd glimpse of his talent -- nowhere near enough, obviously, to suggest he has a future there -- and now in what amounts to a slight vote of confidence, Mourinho says he'll use him in his favoured advanced position -- a nod to his goalscoring prowess. Rooney's got a new, old role, if you will.

As the sands of time slip through his fingers and his career trajectory dips well below the incredibly high standards he has set, by all means criticise his no-shows, dreadful misses, his five away goals since November 2014 and his inconsistent ability to control a football.

But don't scowl because he's on the wane; smile because his peak was so high. Rooney from 2004-2010 was a terrifying footballer, and his career highlights will still shine even if soaked in sepia years from now.