LONDON — Don't kill Wayne Rooney. It's advice that is as pertinent now for English football as it was eight years ago when offered as Sven-Goran Eriksson's last act as England coach.
When one of Eriksson's successors, Roy Hodgson, announces his squad for next month's European Championship qualifiers this week, questions over Rooney's temperament will once again be raised.
One rash swing of the right boot at Stewart Downing on Saturday earned Rooney a straight red card while captaining Manchester United against West Ham on Saturday. The tackle was wild and needless, coming inside the West Ham half.
Reckless rather than malicious, even though it earns a three-match suspension for serious foul play, with no appeal being sought.
"I tried to trip him up," Rooney offered by way of explanation. "As he pushed the ball away, my leg straightened out."
Just six games into his captaincy it was seen by some as a throwback to the days when the striker was defined by his hot-headedness and his chances of winning the captain's armband for club and country seemed as thin as his receding hairline. While it took a hair transplant to bring the follicles back to life, Rooney's confidence and leadership abilities have developed with maturity.
When Nemanja Vidic left United in May, it was Rooney against Robin van Persie for the captaincy, and new manager Louis van Gaal overlooked his compatriot.
When Steven Gerrard retired from England duty after a woeful World Cup, the 28-year-old Rooney was Hodgson's obvious choice as the most experienced and vocal member of a youthful squad.
"Baggage," is how Hodgson described Rooney's past indiscretions and flare-ups on international duty after being handed the honor, conceding: "He will have to accept that as a further part of the pressure."
Before Saturday, Rooney had not been sent off since October 2011, when he kicked out at a Montenegro player during a Euro 2012 qualifier. The last United dismissal came two years before that, receiving a second booking and unleashing abuse at the referee, a habit that seems to have been eradicated from his game.
How many times was Vidic, the previous holder of the United armband, sent off in the Premier League? Twice last season alone, and six times in total across nine seasons.
Rooney has been dismissed just twice in 313 league appearances for United. Unfortunately for the former Everton prodigy, Saturday's blip came while marking a decade since his United debut. At Old Trafford, Rooney couldn't replicate his 2004 debut hat trick against Fenerbahce, but significantly he did score before the Downing kick and United did still collect just its second win in seven matches this season.
"I think everyone knew (I was in the wrong)," Rooney said. "So I am just grateful that the lads were able to hold on."
Had United lost again, Rooney would undoubtedly have faced a far more hostile reaction from critics who resent him for earning 300,000 pounds ($487,000) a week.
The latest contract terms were agreed last year after Rooney agitated for a transfer unsuccessfully for a second time. However much those actions divided sections of the United fan base, Rooney will now surely end his career at Old Trafford as one of the club's greats alongside Bobby Charlton, even if his conduct hasn't always matched that of the gentleman of English football.
Rooney is just 31 goals from the 250-mark that would overhaul Charlton as United's all-time leading scorer. The target to claim Charlton's England record is 50 and he needs nine more goals. That could be achieved before the 2016 European Championship, with San Marino and Estonia, the weakest teams in England's qualifying group, the opponents next month.
United will have to cope without Rooney for the entire month of October. A consequence of the early League Cup loss to lower-league MK Dons means the three-match suspension will be served entirely in the Premier League. The greatest beneficiary could be Juan Mata, the $60-million January signing who was demoted to the bench on Saturday, with Rooney not eligible until the Nov. 2 derby against Manchester City.
"It is tough," Rooney said. "So I just have to make sure I train well and be ready for when I come back."
And ensure he remains as contrite as he is now.
"Don't kill him, I beg you," Eriksson said after Rooney was sent off as England exited the 2006 World Cup. "He is a fantastic player."
Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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