THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS BACK with a bang but few transfers over the summer have divided opinion as much as the return of the prodigal son to Goodison Park. Some people say never go back but some people never say never, so it’s time to see whether Wayne Rooney can remind us all of the formidable force of nature that he used to be.
Over the hill? Past his prime? He’s lived his life in the limelight and answered his critics throughout his career but let’s keep in mind that before the records were broken there was a boy from the streets of Liverpool who was desperate to conquer the world. I know that all too well because I came face to face with that frightening talent. Wayne Rooney is a player who’s not easy to forget.
My first encounter with Rooney was when I was 16. I was playing for Crewe Alexandra’s academy at Bellefield, the old Everton training ground in the West Derby region of Liverpool. With its large bricked perimeter you’d be forgiven for thinking you were inside the walls of a state prison of some sorts. There was an old school mentality about a place that is a million miles from the ultra-modern Finch Farm complex which the players use today.
I loved everything that Bellefield stood for because from the moment you drove through the gates, you knew full well that you were up against it. No game with Everton at schoolboy level was ever going to be easy; it was blood and thunder from the first whistle to the last.
I’d gained decent knowledge of most players in my age group growing up because I’d been in the academy system since the age of eight. A lad called Michael Symes was my usual nemesis, a striker who went on to forge a decent career in the Football League and who I would reunite with later in my career at Crewe. But on that day, I had a very different opponent to contend with – a 14-year-old kid in a baggy shirt playing two years above his age group. The Everton coaching staff clearly felt he could make the step up. He went by the name of Wayne Rooney.
My Crewe side triumphed by two goals to one but you can guess who was on the scoresheet for the boys in blue can’t you? Rooney was like a lion in the savannah, and I was his prey. He waited to pounce and was ready to punish. One lapse of concentration was all it took for him to demonstrate to me what he would become. His goal happened in a flash and he had escaped my grasp before I had even chance to think about catching him. Like all great finishers, he had the killer instinct to get himself into the goalscoring position but then the calmness to execute it. It didn’t make sense. How old was he again?
As I made my way back to the dressing room after the final whistle, my coach was quick to congratulate me on my performance. This came as a bit of a shock to the system. It was rare to receive praise when the man I was meant to be keeping quiet had just scored. In all honesty, I was expecting the worst because Rooney was the youngest player on the pitch by some distance. I was then told that this kid was an England youth international and was assured that he was about to explode. I made it my business to make a mental note of who I’d come up against that day.
A couple of years later I was set the task of dealing with Rooney for a second time. I was a second year scholar by then and delighted to have been selected for Crewe’s under-19 fixture with Everton. Our team was not an easy side to break into because the year above mine was an ultra-talented group, 11 of whom had already signed professional terms with the club. I was still fighting to earn that elusive first pro contract. My dream was alive but I was under no illusions or promises. There was still an awful lot of work for me to do if I was going prove myself worthy of a future in the game. For Wayne Rooney, it was not a question of if he would make it, it was simply a matter of when.
Rooney was now playing three years above his own age group and leading the line. He looked and acted differently to the last time we played. He’d grown for a start. He might have been playing for the away side but he wanted to make it abundantly clear to me and everybody else that our pitch was his home.
Read | Wayne Rooney: an inconvenient legend
Snarling his way across the grass, he flew into tackles like there was no tomorrow. He was booked for a challenge on me, which was a rarity in itself because yellow cards were scarcely dished out in those youth matches, but it was late and he left the referee with no real choice. I’d not quite encountered that type of aggression before.
I could sense his temperature rising as he barked orders at his teammates despite the fact they were much older than him. He had no problem telling them what to do and where to be but they lacked the consistency of quality to meet his level of demand. I most certainly had not seen that before.
His frustration continued to grow, and with the game all square, he launched himself towards me once more. His studs caught me midway up my shin pads. I got up as quickly as I could and shook myself off; I’d not been brought up to make the most of a challenge and I didn’t want to show a sign of weakness to such a fierce competitor. It was a tackle worthy of a second yellow but the referee was reluctant to reach for his pocket. It didn’t matter. The screams from the Everton dugout had already determined Rooney’s fate. The coaching staff were not best pleased with their young prodigy. They’d given him plenty of warning throughout the game and now it was time to teach him a lesson.
He was substituted immediately, and before he had the chance to gather splinters on the bench, he was instructed to run laps of our training ground. There may well have been a huff of disapproval but Rooney, the future of English football, took the punishment that he was given. The only thing I could think of as I glanced from the pitch was how special this kid must truly be.
Within a whirlwind 12 months, Rooney had lit up the Youth Cup and gone on to score the goal against Arsenal that would make him a household name. I would still be a third year scholar – still fighting for my childhood dream that Rooney, at just 16, was already living.
As a Manchester United supporter I was buzzing with excitement when he swapped the blue of Everton for the deep red of my boyhood club. I jumped for joy in the Stretford End when he scored that volley against Newcastle United. He was still arguing with the referee, and still the stupendously talented street footballer that I had gone toe-to-toe with as a schoolboy. The difference was that he was now strutting his stuff on the biggest stage and he, more than any other player, helped me to feel connected to it all in a way I’ve never felt before or since.
It didn’t matter if I watched him for United or England, he played in those early years of his career like he was still the kid at Bellefield. Driven by instinct and not held back by fear, he always had me on the edge of my seat. It didn’t matter whether I was his opponent on the pitch or his supporter in the stand, I always felt he was capable of producing the moments of magic that you wish you would even dare to try. His records may never be broken, and I believe, with time, even his most staunchest of critics will recognise the legacy that he has created.
The last encounter between Rooney and Roberts was the briefest of them all. I’d progressed through the ranks at Crewe and was now returning to Bellefield to play Everton reserves. This was a big deal for me because I was preparing to compete against proper Premier League players. As I pulled into training ground, a car let me in through the gates It was Rooney at the wheel. He was fully fledged in the first team fold by then so wouldn’t be playing in the game but we exchanged a nod as we passed one another in the car park.
I’d like to think it was more than courtesy on his part and that it was because he remembered who I was and the battles we had shared. That might be me clutching at straws somewhat, but I’ll never forget that kid I came up against in my teenage years.
Perhaps going back to where it all began was the only way Rooney was ever going to be able move forward with the reminder of his career. He’s clearly not ready to fade into the shadows. He’s still the kid from Croxteth and I hope he can remember, like I do, the glory of his youth.