Fourteen years since Wayne Rooney burst to national, and even international, prominence, we take a look at the player he once was, and why we should appreciate his achievements.
When Clive Tyldesley uttered the words “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!” back in October 2002 it seemed to many that the latest England, if not global, football superstar had been born. The man, or should we say boy, was just 5 days’ shy of his 17th birthday. He had just taken down a long hopeful punt by Thomas Gravesen, swivelled, taken two further touches, before thumping an unstoppable shot past the despairing dive of David Seaman. That goal against Arsenal propelled him to almost instant fame.
He was a precocious talent, frightening in fact. He had the frame of someone who belied his young age, and the verve and arrogance of a seasoned professional. Arsène Wenger remarked after the match that he was the best talent he had seen since he had arrived in England some six years earlier.
What followed was a dramatic rise; 116 days after his effort against Arsenal he made his England debut against Australia at Upton Park, a game that will also be remembered for the debut of another Scouse prodigy, Francis Jeffers.
Jeffers actually scored England’s only goal in the 3-1 defeat, but that was to be his only goal and in fact his only cap for his country. Rooney would have to wait a further five caps before his first England goal. When it did eventually come, the equalising goal in a 2-1 away win over Macedonia, he became the youngest player to ever score for the Three Lions. Since then another 112 caps have followed, and a remarkable 52 goals.
It is perhaps poignant that 14 years on from that wonder goal against Arsenal, Rooney now finds himself at the lowest point of his career. No longer an automatic choice for club nor country, the Croxteth-born man has reached a crossroads in his career.
Fourteen years is a long time in any profession, but in football 14 years constitutes the vast majority of a career, if not a whole one. Rooney, still only 30, has, as we all do, aged. He has mellowed; thankfully we don’t see the constant haranguing of officials that used to dog his early years, nor do we see petulant acts of violence that tarred his reputation.
The boy wonder grew up. He became a dad, a family man, the captain of both club and country, a man with responsibility. Yet for all of these positives sadly Rooney is no longer the same player he once was. His burst of pace has gone, his driving runs and unpredictability are no longer in his armoury and his ability to beat people has sadly left him being an often quite one dimensional player. In essence Rooney now does not offer the threat, nor strike fear into opposition players like he once used to.
Yet to dismiss Rooney as a bad player would be verging on sheer ignorance. Football fans are notoriously fickle, and they have particularly bad memories. Rooney in his heyday was an extraordinary player. People seem to forget that he scored four goals at a major tournament at the age of just 18. People rarely talk about the fact that he scored a hat-trick on his Manchester United debut, nor do they remember the way he carried United during the 2009/10 season, winning the PFA Player of the Year award in the process.
No. For most fans Rooney’s legacy is his current form; the form that has seen him axed from the first XI for both club and country.
Since the age of 17 Rooney has harboured the hopes of a nation. That is not an exaggerative comment; Rooney has been the player that England fans have laid their hopes on ending their now 50 plus years of hurt.
Back in 2006, when he clashed rather innocuously with Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira in a league match at Stamford Bridge, the country held its breath. Back then fans knew and appreciated the gravity of the situation; the prospect of going to a World Cup without their talisman seemed incomprehensible.
Even Chelsea’s England contingent that day, Terry, Lampard and Joe Cole, despite lifting the Premier League trophy at the end of their 3-0 victory, seemed somewhat distracted and concerned for their injured international colleague. They knew, as did everyone else, that should England have any chance of success at the tournament, a fit and firing Wayne Rooney would be required. He was still only 20 years old, yet questions over his fitness amounted to little short of a national crisis. Imagine dealing with that pressure at 20 years of age?
Rooney had to, and he did. He recovered from injury, and figured in the latter part of the group stage and the Round of 16 win over Ecuador. The following match, the Quarter-Final against Portugal, will always be remembered his now infamous red card for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, and the behaviour of his then Manchester United team mate, Cristiano Ronaldo.
It could be argued that Rooney’s expulsion ultimately led to England’s exit. Yet Rooney wasn’t pilloried by either the press nor supporters in the same way David Beckham was for receiving a red card in similar circumstances eight years earlier. In many ways the events of that day only seemed to further endear Rooney to the English public.
For most back then Rooney still embodied everything that they loved in an English footballer. That street fighter mentality, dogged spirit, and a never say die attitude really struck a chord with passionate England fans. For them Rooney was the future, and with him England had a genuine chance of ending all those years of hurt.
Yet despite the extraordinary talent Rooney demonstrated in his younger years, he never reached the heights that many people had hoped and expected.
Players peak at different times. Whilst some may have their best years in their mid- to late-twenties, Rooney seemed to peak around the age of 18. Rooney at 18 was better than Messi and Ronaldo at the same age. Through the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that Rooney peaked too soon. Certainly if Rooney were now playing at the level he was 12 years ago, people would be waxing lyrical.
His goal scoring record was never as spectacular as some of his contemporaries, yet his all round play was nearly always of a high standard. Assists, driving runs, picking his team up when they were down were all things that seemed to come naturally to his game. That ability to change games made him stand out and made him such an enigma. Opposition teams feared Rooney and his unpredictability.
Nowadays this is sadly not the case. The writing does seem to be on the wall with regards to Rooney’s immediate future. On current form alone it is unlikely that he will ever regain the prominence he once held. Younger, more athletic players have come and dislodged Rooney from his favoured attacking roles. The midfield experiment has been tried and despite early promise looks unlikely to be revisited at club level at least.
But now is not the time for vitriolic sneers from so-called football aficionados. Now is not the time to dismiss Rooney’s prior achievements. Perhaps he has not had the career, that many of us had hoped for, yet he has still achieved infinitely more than most other English players will during their careers. Five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, and a Champions League trophy goes to prove that his achievements are certainly not to be frowned upon.
Whilst it may seem that Rooney’s days are numbered at Old Trafford, he will continue to be part of the England squad. In truth he does deserve to be. Having said he will retire at the end of the next World Cup, the least England owes him is a swansong. Realistically though he can’t offer the same breathtaking displays he once did. In many ways Rooney’s own footballing future really lies in his own acceptance of that fact.
But on the anniversary of his rise to international prominence, we should take a moment to remember the player that Rooney once was, the things he achieved, and the brilliant moments he gave us.