Occasionally when a talent is so rich in potential, it becomes impossible to keep the lid on the secret. Wayne Rooney, and his astonishing ascent to superstardom, was such occasion.
Everton’s existence in the Premier League era had been largely forgettable as the nineties turned to the noughties, with the Toffees a shadow of the side who were twice crowned champions of England just over a decade earlier.
In nine of the first ten Premier League seasons, the club had languished in the table’s bottom half, but whispers surrounding a teenage talent from a Croxteth council estate evoked Evertonian excitement.
Rooney had scored 114 goals in 29 games for Everton’s youth sides during the 1995/96 season, before being promoted rapidly through the ranks. At 15, he was part of the club’s u-19 group, before a run of eight goals in eight games saw Everton reach the 2002 FA Youth Cup final.
After spending that summer with the first team, he became the second-youngest player in Everton history after debuting against Spurs in August. Soon, he was the club’s youngest goalscorer after a League Cup brace at Wrexham in early October. A fortnight later, another goal would change his life forever.
Everton were battling towards a draw with reigning champions Arsenal at Goodison Park, with Tomasz Radzinksi having cancelled out Freddie Ljungberg’s goal for the visitors. The north London side were on a record-breaking 30-game unbeaten run, but saw that proud streak ended in spectacular fashion.
Thomas Gravesen’s hopeful high punt appeared to pose little danger before Rooney, introduced from the bench late on, brought the ball under instant control. He drove towards the penalty area and, with Arsenal’s defence back-peddling, took aim.
“A brilliant goal. A brilliant goal,” ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley shrieked in disbelief.
“Remember the name: Wayne Rooney.”
— Everton (@Everton) October 19, 2020
The 16-year-old had crashed an unstoppable effort in off the underside of the crossbar, with David Seamen well beaten. Everton had struggled to keep Rooney’s promise a secret. There was no chance now.
Having only left school in the summer, Rooney was now the Premier League’s headline news. Media outlets everywhere scrambled for a piece of the prospect, the once-in-a-generation talent offering hope to his hometown team.
“He’s supposed to be 16. At that age, Rooney is already a complete footballer. The guy can play,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger reflected after the teenager’s match-winning moment downed his side.
“He’s the best English under-20 I’ve seen since I came here [in 1996]. He can play people in, he’s clever and a natural, built like a Paul Gascoigne with his low centre of gravity. And he can dribble – I like strikers who can dribble.”
Rooney made his England debut at 17, before travelling to the 2004 European Championship. England’s squad was strong, with the Three Lions boasting a ‘Golden Generation’ of individual talent. At the centre of it, was Rooney.
Rooney had made an impressive start to his international career with five goals in 13 appearances, but few could have envisaged what was to come. On the biggest of stages, Rooney came of age.
France were the opponents in England’s opening game and while Zinedine Zidane’s late double condemned Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side to defeat, it was Rooney’s ragdolling of the holders that created English excitement.
France defender Lilian Thuram had memorably, and foolishly, dismissed the threat of the ‘kid playing up front for England’.
Rooney was irresistible, flicking the ball over the head of Thuram and powering away. His electric run was only ended as Mikael Silvestre scythed him down inside the area for a penalty.
It was a moment that summarised his performance, one which saw the 18-year-old instil fear into the French. This was a team of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. None of that mattered. Rooney was the most exciting talent on the pitch – and it wasn’t particularly close.
“You could see their centre-backs were scared to come near me, scared that I’d go past them,” Rooney recalled in Amazon’s ‘Rooney’ documentary.
“Physically I could handle myself against them. I just banged right into Thuram, into his jaw. And I looked back at him as if to say ‘now you know who I am!’
— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) May 27, 2021
“I remember at that tournament, at 18, thinking to myself I was the best player in the world. There’s no one better than me and I believe at that time I was.”
Thuram was not the last defender to feel full force what England’s great hope was capable of. Brilliant braces in wins over Switzerland and Croatia booked the Three Lions a place in the last eight, where Portugal awaited.
Rooney had taken the tournament by storm, but an innocuous moment derailed England’s seemingly unstoppable force. A tangle early on saw Rooney break his metatarsal and the Three Lions crashed out to the Portuguese on penalties. How things could have been different.
Rooney’s performances had captured the imagination of an entire nation. He was the embodiment of the fearlessness of youth, but with the speed, strength and swagger of a phenomenon in fully-fledged form. He was chaos at times and calm in others, simultaneously capable of bulldozing or outwitting opponents. His disregard for elite defenders proved he belonged on the biggest stage, as Everton’s fears that he had already outgrown them were realised even sooner than expected.
In August he signed for Manchester United in a £25.6 million deal, becoming the most expensive teenager of all time. Sir Alex Ferguson declared the new recruit as the ‘best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years’. It was hardly hyperbole.
Rooney’s delayed debut enforced his manager’s claims. Old Trafford was an amphitheatre of anticipation as Fenerbahce arrived for a Champions League date in Manchester, amid the news that Rooney had recovered from the foot issue sustained in the summer. On a barely believable night, the teenage sensation hit a hat-trick.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) March 23, 2022
Rooney was one half of a partnership who would take Manchester United back to previous heights. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, he helped the Red Devils wrestle back Premier League supremacy from Arsenal and Chelsea during the mid-noughties. In tandem the two were terrific, a synthesis of scintillating talent who propelled Ferguson’s last great side.
Their union, however, so nearly came to a premature end. England’s exit to Portugal at the 2006 World Cup saw Rooney sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, with Ronaldo front and centre in seeking punishment for his club teammate. A wink to the Portuguese bench after Rooney’s red card heightened tensions between the pair on their return from the tournament, with Ferguson forced to repair the damage.
Fortunately, for Ferguson and his team, the incident was forgotten and normal service resumed. Together, the pair fired Manchester United to three consecutive Premier League titles, with the second of those coming alongside Champions League success in Moscow.
Rooney’s had been the more electrifying emergence of the devastating duo, but his selflessness – alongside Ronaldo’s singleminded approach to reaching the top – saw the latter ascend past Rooney to the summit of the sport.
But while Ronaldo moved on as Real Madrid came calling, Rooney remained. Though off-field issues, unwanted headlines, and a brief dalliance with departing punctuated his time and muddied his legacy, on the pitch Rooney remained elite.
He was named as the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 2009/10, having scored 34 goals to alleviate fears over Ronaldo’s exit, adding the honour to the back-to-back Young Player accolades won earlier in the decade.
As the noughties came to a close Rooney had scored over a century of Premier League goals, a figure that would reach 208 before the chapter of his playing career closed.
Among them were some of the most noteworthy of the Premier League era. A venomous volley against Newcastle and that Manchester Derby magic are indelible in the division’s gallery of great goals.
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 5, 2019
For England, he never again recaptured the major tournament performances of Euro 2004, but then no other English player has reached that level either. At the time of retirement was the Three Lions’ all-time record goalscorer, eclipsing Sir Bobby Charlton.
Charlton’s club record also fell at Manchester United, as Rooney racked up 253 goals in all competitions and became one of just two English players to win a clean sweep of Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, Europa League, and FIFA Club World Cup
A romantic return to Everton, the club of his heart, and short spells in MLS and at Derby County brought a close to a career, which contained no shortage of iconic instalments.
— Premier League (@premierleague) May 26, 2020
Rooney was the street footballer who took his talent to the top, a generational great and genius goalscorer. He might have been an awkward fit for the unwanted celebrity status which inevitably came, but in the confines of the pitch he was born to perform.
Ask any of his former teammates and Rooney is likely to head a queue of past players you want with you when times are tough. This was a forward who could win games on his own, and often did, but who was equally at home hurtling back towards his own corner flag to chase down opposition attackers. His game was often played on the edge, a cyclonic force of competitive fire and pent-up aggression. It was an anger that, while occasionally combustible, brought the best from him.
There has not been an English emergence quite like Wayne Rooney, who stoked an excitement that caused club and country to pin their hopes and dare to dream. There might not be another like it for some time to come.