September 2002, Everton were expected to gallantly fail to stop an Arsenal side who had finished Premier League runners-up the season before, but what the world didn’t know was that a certain 16-year old youth team player, who was Everton’s second-half substitution, would shake the world with a crashing, curling goal from outside the area. Goodison Park erupted and the world stood to attention.
He quickly became an anti-hero; a delightful antidote to the mysterious foreign recluses who graced the Premier League, a player who was living the dream of many of his Evertonian supporters, who bullied his way through opposing defences with the attitude of Eric Cantona and the striking instinct and raw power of future teammate Carlos Tevez.
A bulldozing bundle of energy and arrogance he thrust himself onto the stage and shoved aside the more illustrious Premier League luminaries. That pasty-looking kid would be loved, loathed, celebrated, hated and all but forgotten, he would go on to become Manchester United and England all-time leading goalscorer and went by the name of Wayne Rooney.
A precocious talent, built like a middleweight boxer and armed with a street football-style mindset, there were obvious comparisons to Paul Gascoigne by the salivating English media. Before too long Sven-Göran Eriksson called Rooney up for the senior national team. England’s defeat to Australia is all but forgotten, but England’s youngest ever debutant at the time starred in a second half of tenacity and vigour. Rooney played without fear as free as a kid who had been pulled from the youth team and given a shirt as a last minute replacement. He chased lost causes, harried opponents and barked orders at his teammates.
Rooney was now part of the average fan’s conscience, and in his first season, he made a total of 37 appearances, scoring eight goals. In hindsight, it is this heavy use which eventually took its toll on Rooney in later years, yet for the moment at least he could do no wrong. The excitement reached a new level in September 2003 when at just 17 years and 317 days old he became England’s youngest ever goalscorer with a sharp half-volley to equalise away to Macedonia.
Having gone one better in terms of goals for Everton in 2003/04, Rooney and England set about trying to capture that elusive trophy in Portugal during the summer of 2004. Zinedine Zidane and company tempered expectations with an opening game defeat. There was still hope though and Rooney, now on an international stage, elevated himself to a new stratosphere with a carefree cartwheeling, bullet-heading display against Switzerland in the second group game in Coimbra where he became the UEFA European Championship youngest goalscorer.
On the crest of a euphoric wave, Rooney and England confirmed their Quarter Final place with a commanding 4-2 victory over Croatia. Rooney scored two goals with the relaxed, yet determined attitude of someone in the latter stages of their football life. Rooney was still 18. England’s penalty shootout hell returned to haunt them in the Quarter Final against the hosts, despite leading twice during normal time and having a goal disallowed in extra time. England quickly folded under the pressure of the shootout and returned home trophyless once more.
A blistering start to his senior career mixed with the inspired and confident finishing in Euro 2004 fuelled rumours of a move away from Goodison Park. Rooney submitted a transfer request after Euro 2004 and to no one’s surprise, Manchester United paid £25.6m for him in August 2004, the most for a player under 20 years of age. The 21st century Roy of the Rovers story with a working class Scouse kid as its hero was set for another chapter and Rooney made his United debut in the 6-2 demolition of Fenerbahçe in the UEFA Champions League and yet another record would become Rooney’s before the evening’s end; that of youngest player to score a Champions League hat-trick. A hattrick on his United debut, even the most surreal of film scripts wouldn’t have started like this.
April 2005 saw Rooney’s career neatly captured in just ten seconds of play. At home to Newcastle United, Rooney, upon angrily haranguing the referee halfway between centre circle and goal, ran on to a headed clearance and leathered an unstoppable volley past Shay Given. Rooney’s infamous temper and vitriol, this time aimed at the referee, was channelled into his right foot as he lashed a perfect shot. His ability to funnel his anger while still being composed and clinical in front of goal were the hallmarks of Rooney’s exciting fledgling career. Rooney finished his first season as United’s top goalscorer but would have to wait until the following year for his first trophy in professional football.
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Being able to play on the periphery of good discipline occasionally means one will overstep the boundary and Rooney was sent off away to Villareal in the Champions League in September 2005. This time he was the recipient of two yellow cards, the second for sarcastically clapping the referee after a decision went against him. The rather childish nature of his sending off highlighted his argumentative character. A trait which was, and still is, somewhat polarizing; loved and admired by fans of his own team but loathed and vilified by opponents and managers. This is merely part of the Rooney character and it was now being used to praise and chide him.
England’s qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany had, as usual, gone smoothly. However, in April 2006, the nation’s hope hung by a thread as Rooney sustained a broken metatarsal following a tackle by Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira during the defeat at Stamford Bridge, a game in which United’s title hopes were extinguished. The race was on to get England’s shining light fit and back in action with just weeks before the opening game against Paraguay in Frankfurt. England progressed, somewhat wearily, to the knockout rounds, However, Rooney, who missed the first game, was clearly short of full fitness and did little to inspire England’s tournament.
Two years earlier Portugal had shattered England’s Euro 2004 with a penalty shootout victory and history repeated itself in Gelsenkirchen as England and Portugal were once again separated by penalties. This doesn’t tell the whole story as England, aside from an early period of pressure were woefully flat, and Rooney, isolated and unhappy, became increasingly frustrated and the inevitable happened just after the hour. Rooney tangled with Ricardo Carvalho and he stamped on the defender’s groin, the referee had no choice but to send Rooney off, much to the amusement and gratification of United teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. Rooney, bereft of quality service from his colleagues and desperately short of match fitness had let his temper, so often a weapon to be used against the opposition, fuel a pressure cooker of self-doubt and anger, Ronaldo and company were only too happy to allow Rooney to self-destruct.
The World Cup disappointment was firmly behind him as Rooney hit his stride the following season and he picked up the first of five Premier League titles at Old Trafford. Ronaldo, the pantomime villain of the English press, had a magnificent season, and he and Rooney finished as joint-top goalscorers with 23.
Rooney lifted the Champions League trophy in 2008 after a penalty victory over Chelsea in the first all-English final in Moscow. The Champions League victory was merely the crowning glory for United, a season in which they lost just five league games and won their second successive league title. Rooney scored 12 league goals in an injury-plagued season and Ronaldo, in his prime at United, scored 42 in all competitions. Looking back at this late 2000s era it’s easy to forget just how clinical United were, dispatching Lyon, Roma and Barcelona on their way to the Final with only one goal conceded.
United’s second successive Champions League Final in 2009, coupled with their third league title in a row confirmed their dominance atop the English and European game. Unfortunately, United were defeated by a powerful and supremely talented Barcelona side, and they cantered to a 2-0 win in Rome. Reaching his peak at United, Rooney’s composed displays gave an air of a new found maturity about them. Closing in on 100 goals for United he scored in the Semi-Final and Final of the FIFA Club World Cup as they saw off Quito of Ecuador to lift the trophy.
The FIFA circus landed in South Africa in 2010 as Fabio Capello and his men set off confidently in search of World Cup glory. England walked a familiar path and qualification for the Round of 16 was by no means certain after a goalless draw with Algeria. Rooney, upon hearing boos from the travelling England fans, turned to a television camera, looking like a sweaty, angry beetroot and let his feelings be known. Many would agree with the vitriol spouted by fans paying thousands of pounds to see a game with reasonable expectations of a win only to be ‘rewarded’ with a dull and insipid display. Rooney, chief protagonist of England’s woes on the pitch, cannot have had any complaints that a tepid and lifeless performance was met with such a reaction.
Qualification was nervously secured with a win over Slovenia and a clash with rivals Germany awaited in the Round of 16. Rooney was part of the team which was comfortably turned over, 4-1. England fans can bemoan the disallowed goal which clearly crossed Manuel Neuer’s goal line, but no one can confidently suggest England deserved anything from the game or indeed the tournament itself. Once again Rooney had failed to shine at an international tournament and once again his bland performance was part of a collective flop which contributed to the mess England had become on the international stage.
Returning to club football gave little comfort to Rooney as the relationship between him and Sir Alex Ferguson soured when Rooney apparently asked to leave the club. A vital part of United’s 2008 Champions League and Premier League winning team, it seemed unfathomable that Rooney would want to leave or that United should consider selling him, but perhaps this was the beginning of the end for Rooney at United and the saga of his injured ankle, subsequent demotion to the bench and a contract dispute left an unsavoury taste in the mouth of United fans.
The press reaction was to vilify Rooney, painting him to be a spoilt kid who had become too big for the club. Rooney released a statement stating he could not be given assurances over the club’s direction by United Chief Executive, David Gill, he further stated his transfer request was about ambition, not money. Most disagreed. Compare the early-career bullish kid, kicking every ball and opposition player as though he had a vendetta against everything in his way, to the cynical, greedy and conceited player he’d become. The love of the game itself appeared to have withered away as though he’d sold out for a few extra pounds in the bank.
Just days after his time at Old Trafford was seemingly at an end he announced a dramatic U-turn and signed a 5-year contract extension, much to the delight of some and annoyance of others. Fans have exceedingly long memories and nothing was ever the same between Rooney and the United faithful after this.
2011 brought more personal success as Rooney scored probably his most memorable United goal: a bicycle kick which proved to be the winner in the Manchester derby. He also became the third United player, along with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to score 100 Premier League goals. The 100th goal was the second of three away to West Ham United, and the celebrations following his third goal brought another moment of Scouse bluntness as he swore into a pitchside camera. Cue pompous outcry from the more sensitive of members of the media. Rooney accepted the subsequent charge but disputed the two-match ban, his protestations fell on deaf ears though.
The final month of the season was set up to be as memorable as the ending to 2007/08, United clinched the Premier League title, Rooney’s fourth, and they also faced Barcelona in the Champions League Final at Wembley. The game, aside from some pressure from United either side of Rooney’s sumptuous curling equaliser, was never a contest. Barcelona, in their late 2000s pomp, simply passed their way through the United midfield at will, completely dominating possession. The game reflected Barcelona’s dominance of the European game and no other side, even United, could match them.
A trophyless 2011/12 (unless we’re counting the Community Shield) saw a floundering United side finding it difficult to pick up the pieces from the Barca hammering. Rooney was top scorer with a career high 34, but their season made worse by Champions League, then UEFA Europa League failure. The most excruciating part though was ‘noisy neighbours’ City clinching the title in injury time of the final game.
Rooney was part of the England side who made their customary Quarter Final tournament appearance, this time at Euro 2012. As standard as the Quarter Final place, was the pre-tournament drama. Rooney was suspended for the first two group games after being red carded in Montenegro. But England’s talisman struck the only goal against Ukraine which sent his side through. As had happened to United in the Champions League Final 12 months earlier, England simply came up against far superior opposition in the shape of Italy in the Quarter Finals. Andrea Pirlo delivered a performance of sheer quality as he twisted, dummied and passed his way around England. The eventual penalty shootout victory was more than deserved but England, with limited hopes of success, weren’t vilified as they had been in previous years. Rooney’s fourth international tournament was yet to bring any joy and time wasn’t on his side if he was going to correct that.
United’s 20th and last title to date came in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season as manager. A title win to match few others, a staggering 11 points separated United from nearest challengers, and defending champions, City. However, Ferguson’s last home game was one which Rooney requested not to play having handed in a transfer request. The latest instalment of the Rooney contract drama again had many United fans torn between whether to back the player or the club. The player who had rightly become an Old Trafford legend and who was quickly closing in on 200 goals in red was prepared to leave them. Such was the poisonous atmosphere around the club, it wasn’t a surprise to eventually see the United hierarchy calm the issue and new boss, David Moyes, quickly dispelled any transfer rumours.
Many had foreseen the end of Ferguson’s legendary reign at Old Trafford and perhaps, in hindsight, he vacated the manager’s office at exactly the right time. He left a team in transition and Moyes quickly found this out first-hand as the beginning of United’s post-Fergie purgatory left United blundering their way to a Premier League era worst 7th place in 2014. Rooney, once the hero of Old Trafford was quickly becoming a target of criticism from the press and, as the contract disputes of previous years slowly eroded away the fanaticism, United fans became impatient with Rooney’s displays; many scapegoating him at every opportunity with most feeling he was now expendable.
The hair had thinned, the legs moved a little slower and the energy dimmed somewhat, but Rooney, who had been at the top from the very start of his controversial career, still turned in some unselfish and match-winning performances; his traditional top goalscorer award at Old Trafford was his again in 2014.
Rooney had become a symbol of disappointment at United and the same would happen with the national team too. England reached a nadir after disastrous tournament campaigns in 2014 and 2016. In Brazil, England registered a solitary point before travelling home. Rooney scored his only World Cup goal for the Three Lions, an equaliser against Uruguay, as they briefly looked like a team capable of qualifying for the Round of 16. Briefly. Luis Suarez put paid to that dream almost instantly.
He was made England captain in between the tournaments, it initially appeared to bring out some mature and focused performances in him and he broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s England record of 49 goals in September 2015. However, a very familiar and depressingly obvious story followed at Euro 2016 as England meandered their way through the group and then out of the competition after defeat against Iceland.
Rooney was by no means the only player who simply forgot how to play football that evening in Nice, but he was Roy Hodgson’s captain and it was sad to see just how far England’s best player had fallen as he turned in an awkward and frankly, embarrassing performance. Many called for Rooney to be dropped from the national team, it had no come to a point where no one cared about him and his presence was stifling the prospects of England strikers of the future, but Hodgson had appeared too scared to drop him and instead shoehorned him into a failing side which lacked any spirit or desire.
At United, Louis van Gaal became the latest incumbent of football’s latest poisoned chalice and made Rooney captain. Some may have been hesitant, could he channel his temper into being a vocal and authoritative captain for his club? A leader? By now Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidić had all left and realistically, Rooney was the next senior player in line. This didn’t stop an already angry and disenchanted fan base becoming even more splintered.
Miraculously, van Gaal lasted two seasons at United but they never recovered from one win in their first five games in 2014-15 and the task in hand quickly got away from him. Rooney, alongside bewildered-looking signings, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ángel Di Mariá and Radamel Falcao, quickly became an emblem of a new, post-Ferguson United, one which lacked a consistent style and image, stumbling their way to their two lowest goals totals in the Premier League era. They did, however, win the FA Cup in 2016, Rooney’s first, but finished fifth in the league. Van Gaal was sacked after the FA Cup Final victory, he had failed to rouse a challenge of their rivals in a league campaign which saw Leicester City win the title and his slow and laboured tactics slowly killed any momentum at the club.
Rooney looked burnt out, playing every week from the age of 16 will do that to even the best. Louis van Gaal had countered this by playing him deeper, but it mattered little. On a downward physical trajectory for a few years, Rooney’s game was based on energy and power, but those qualities were failing him and he was now running on empty. It was merely a matter of time before he left United. By the end, he was more lethargic than energetic.
Rooney’s United and England careers came to their conclusion in 2017. Jose Mourinho was the man who initiated Rooney’s departure but not before he became United’s leading scorer. Sir Bobby Charlton’s record was broken away to Stoke City as Rooney hit a magnificent, injury-time free kick. New England manager, Gareth Southgate, armed with a policy of bringing in youthful players based on club form, wouldn’t be as fearful as Hodgson, as he to all intents forced Rooney into early international solitude in 2017 after dropping him from the England squad. Rooney quickly announced his retirement, leaving with dignity and jumping before he was pushed.
Rooney scored over 300 goals for club and country but his career in England had something of an anti-climactic feel to it. He had been certain to beat both club and national records for many years, however, when he finally did no one seemed to care. Underappreciated by much of the United support, his presence in the national side in later years merely angered many in the media and in the stands who didn’t feel his performances merited an inclusion.
It’s fair to say club legends such as Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer were valued more than Rooney, but while they all had goals in common, the aforementioned players didn’t hold their clubs to ransom and Rooney lost a lot of credibility at Old Trafford after his repeated threats to leave. At international level he never really fulfilled his potential on the tournament stage, Euro 2004 aside, and a procession of managers who struggled to find a tactic which would get the best out of Rooney, or the team itself, didn’t help.
Had Rooney been an aloof player from the continent, like Andrés Iniesta or Sócrates; into art, wine and cheese making, he would have been revered the world over. To be seen hero worshipping a foreign player who can pull off a defence-splitting pass on a whim is much cooler than a man crush on an uncouth Scouser with a weight problem.
The conundrum here is that Rooney displayed a lot of characteristics which fans can relate to but as his career progressed these turned into negatives in the eyes of most; wearing your heart on your sleeve is all about balance and composure. The contract demands and off the pitch incidents tipped the balance too far for Rooney to ever be as well-respected again.
Now enjoying a new lease of life at DC United, free of the pressures of the Premier League he appears to be much happier, enjoying the captain’s role and scoring goals with the vigour of a young Rooney. This is how he should be remembered; the ball of raw energy, smiling and spitting fury in equal measures, striking the ball with a controlled ferocity and dividing opinions across the country.