October 19th, 2002: A fresh-faced sixteen year-old Evertonian plucks the ball out of the air and blasts it into the Arsenal goal in the dying minutes.
“Remember the name, Wayne Rooney.”
And so we did.
There has always been an underlying sense that, in Wayne Rooney, there could’ve been more. And that should tell you all you need to know about how highly people thought of him in his earlier days; to look at a career as glittering as Rooney’s and feel even the slightest bit of disappointment is a sign of astronomical standards- and for good reason.
Teenaged Rooney was nothing short of a prodigy- something most people realized as he lit up the 2004 Euros. Manchester United did what so many other clubs wished they did and signed the eighteen year-old for around twenty-seven million pounds. A glorious debut hatrick in the Champions League against Fenerbahce was enough to make everyone forget all about that figure; here was a star.
Let’s have a quick look back on his skillset. Wayne Rooney had an unlikely combination of qualities: a passionate disposition, a fiery temper and a bull-like physique were traits that were rarely associated with a silky touch, unbelievable passing range and a football brain that worked two steps ahead of everyone else. However, in the case of England’s “Golden Boy,” that package was there for everyone to see. Rooney’s first few seasons were no disappointment- by the age of twenty-one he’d already racked up almost 60 goals for United, forming a perfect foil with the likes of van Nistelrooy and later, Ronaldo. The idea of Rooney sacrificing his own numbers to bring the best out of his strike partners would become a usual trend. Indeed, for ten or so years Manchester United’s main strikeforce consisted of Wayne Rooney and someone else- a testament to the Englishman’s consistency and commitment.
As United evolved, so did Rooney. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was lifting the Champions League trophy in Moscow in 2008, a season in which he’d once again played a supporting role with the likes of Ronaldo and Tevez in center stage. Regardless, Rooney was appreciated as one of United’s best players, though a shift was apparent. A player who looked like taking the world by storm was doing it in a different way- by bringing the best out of those around him. Of course, moments of explosive individual brilliance were still abundant enough to appreciate Rooney’s natural talent, but in his head, a more team-oriented mindset was clearly developing. That said, stats-wise his best days were still ahead of him.
Rooney’s best goal-scoring season was the 2009/2010 campaign, with a final tally of 34 goals. The fact that this came straight after Ronaldo’s United departure is by no means a coincidence. For the first time in his career, the Englishman was the focal point of United’s attack, and a Rooney as a pure striker was scintillating- still just 24, he was beginning to look like one of the great forwards of our time. Expectancies were at an all-time high for England fans, with the 2010 World Cup beckoning as the stage for Wayne Rooney to once and for all prove his world class status. Sadly, injury coupled with well-documented personal issues sent those expectancies crashing to the ground. England endured a forgettable campaign, with Rooney hardly looking like a shadow of the player he was a few months previous. Many would say this was the beginning of a very early end.
A testing six months followed, with Rooney continuing to struggle for form and fitness and even looking like he’d leave the club at one point. Although a resurgence followed -Rooney would go on to be extremely influential in the second half of the 2010/2011 season and indeed equaled his record goal tally in the 2011/2012 campaign- there was an unshakable feeling that something was lost. He was developing a knack of dropping deeper and a midfield role was even rumored for him, that relentless striker instinct slowly but surely fading away. One other thing was fading too- “the fire in his belly,” as David Moyes so aptly put it. One would normally appreciate a player’s maturation and a short temper is hardly a good quality to find in a football player, but it was different for Rooney. Ask any United fan and they’ll tell you- the Rooney screaming at referees and making frustrated crunching tackles was simply better than the one they had now, because with that anger came a dimension in his play that set him apart from other players.
One factor instrumental in the longevity of any football player is physical condition and its maintenance. Whichever way you look at it, Wayne Rooney did not look after his body, and for a player who made an average of 42 appearances per season since the age of sixteen, that was career suicide. His pace was deteriorating at an alarming rate and visible displays of unfitness were becoming more and more common. Perhaps the most surprising decline was that of his touch, which by his old standards had dropped to a level that was frankly unbelievable. Tragically, at the age of 29, the Golden Boy didn’t look to be glimmering again. Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, Rooney was experimented on by a series of different managers until Jose Mourinho realized what had to be done and granted him an exit befitting of his legendary service to the Manchester United: A return to his boyhood club Everton.
The question of Wayne Rooney is a funny one. Never before has such an illustrious career been accompanied by such a disappointing career trajectory- how could you call Manchester United’s all-time top goalscorer, a club legend by all accounts, anything other than a resounding success? But then again, upon watching footage of that fiery-eyed eighteen year-old, one can't help but guiltily feel like we could have, perhaps should have, been given more.