It was Goodison Park, Merseyside, 19th of October 2002. Arsenal, the reigning Premier League champions were fighting towards a hard earned point which would continue their 30 game unbeaten run. A 16 year old Wayne Rooney picked the ball up 30 yards from goal in the 90th minute and with a total disregard for the calibre and stature of the opposition, he arrowed a thunderbolt which struck the underside of the cross bar and bounced over the goal line, leaving arguably England’s greatest ever goalkeeper David Seaman grasping at thin air. If you hadn’t heard of English football’s new superstar at that point, you certainly would have by 5 o’clock that evening.
Roll on two years and after a £25m move to Manchester United, the same player continued to defy football logic when he hammered in a hat trick on his United debut in their Champions League group game against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford. It was his performances at Euro 2004 that previous summer where he scored 4 goals in as many games which further enhanced his reputation and prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to make Rooney the most expensive player, under 20 years of age in World football.
Strength, power, pace, aggression and a lethal strike were some of the attributes that made United’s new number 8 one of the most talked about football talents on the planet. However, Rooney struggled for consistency over the next five years. A ten game scoreless run was ended with a hat trick against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium in the 2006/07 season. Other long spells without finding the net continued to hold Rooney back from becoming the finished article. At the same time another of United’s young superstars was finding the type of regular form which was so desperately eluding Rooney. Cristiano Ronaldo hit 42 goals compared to Rooney’s 18 in the double winning season of 2008, which quickly established the Portuguese as the golden boy of Old Trafford.
He was backed by Sir Alex Ferguson by enjoying a freedom on the pitch to move where he wanted and when he wanted in order to affect the game. Ronaldo enjoyed a freedom to express himself that Rooney could only dream of. Ronaldo again dominated Rooney in the goal scoring department the following season, finding the net a slightly more modest 26 times in all competitions, compared to Rooney’s 20. The most painful part for Rooney appeared to be his constant deployment as a wide midfielder in big European games, particularly away from home.
This was in contrast to the freedom Ronaldo was regularly afforded as Rooney was deemed by Sir Alex Ferguson to possess better defensive qualities and a more reliable ability to track back and defend, qualities which Ferguson deemed crucial in those close fought European battles. Rooney appeared to be a victim of his own work ethic and honesty, appearing to be stifled in so many big games. However United reached two Champions League finals in three seasons, so few could argue with Ferguson’s methods.
The breakthrough for Rooney appeared to come in the 2009/10 season following Ronaldo’s £80m departure to Real Madrid. Rooney scored a career best 34 goals in all competitions, won the Football Writers and Players Player of the Year Awards as well as being selected in the FIFPro Team of the Year.
But it was back to familiar territory the following season for Rooney when £30m man Dimitar Berbatov began operating as United’s lone striker with Rooney again being used as an ineffective wide player in several big games, again particularly in Europe. This was reflected in the return of just 16 goals in the 2010/11 season. However, in the 2011/12 season, when Ferguson finally appeared to lose patience with Berbatov, Rooney was pushed back in to a more advanced striker role, notching up 34 goals which equaled his 2011 career best.
In the summer of 2012 Ferguson splashed out £24m to bring in Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie. Despite an injury to Rooney in the opening game of the 2012/13 season, Rooney returned to form a strike partnership with Van Persie, which looked capable of eclipsing the famous Yorke-Cole partnership of 1999. Yet again however as the season progressed, Rooney was pushed out to the flank and back in to central midfield. Before the season had ended, Rooney had delivered his second transfer request in recent years and the question must be asked, why?
Rooney seems to have lost his spark, that aggression which made him the player he once was. He’s a yard short of pace, looks half a stone overweight and with exception to the odd flash of brilliance, Rooney continues to be totally ineffective in so many games. Rooney is a player who’s early potential had him labelled the ‘white Pelé’ but that potential, so evident in his mid to late teen years has never been completely fulfilled and one wonders, had he been given the same support and encouragement as Ronaldo, to go out and affect the big games instead of being shackled in an unfamiliar wide left position, we may have seen a more consistent player develop from the one that tore in to the Premier League champions on that October evening at Goodison Park in 2002.