Sunday 12 August 2018: Washington, USA. The game has entered the sixth minute of stoppage time with DC United chasing a winning goal against Orlando City, the scores tied at 2-2. They have a corner, which Orlando clear and launch a counter-attack. DC keeper David Ousted is stranded in the opposition area and Orlando have a clear run towards an unguarded net. A goal looks certain.
Sensing the danger, Wayne Rooney, a recent marquee signing for DC, produces an inch-perfect sliding tackle on Will Johnson to steal the ball from his control. He swiftly rises, dribbles into the opposition half, and launches a pinpoint 40-yard cross onto the head of Luis Acosta, who nods the ball into the back of the net to seal the most miraculous victory the delirious home crowd has ever seen.
Rooney is a battle-scarred veteran of the Premier League who, pushing 33, could have taken the easy option of a fat paycheque in the elephant’s graveyards of either the Chinese or Qatari leagues. Instead, he is here, in Washington, transforming the club’s season and leading them to the MLS playoffs against all the odds. Zlatan Ibrahimović may think he is the biggest star in MLS but he has just been eclipsed. MLS’ Twitter feed screams out: “Are you kidding us @waynerooney????? Amazing!” Rooney clearly still has the X-Factor.
Sixteen years earlier: Saturday 19 October 2002, Goodison Park. Everton fans have become accustomed to seeing their brightest prospects burn out without a blaze of glory. In recent times, Michael Branch, touted as the hottest prospect in years, has succumbed to a deadly combination of over-expectation combined with underwhelming performance and is now plying his trade in the Championship.
A young 16-year-old called Wayne Rooney has already created a stir through his goalscoring feats for the youth team but, despite the clamour from the fans, his first-team appearances have been restricted. Everton are drawing 1-1 with Arsenal’s Invincibles when manager David Moyes decides to gamble and send Rooney onto the field in place of Tomasz Radzinski.
In the final minute of the game, Rooney deftly controls a long punt forward from Thomas Gravesen and turns away towards the penalty area, as the Arsenal defenders retreat. He races towards the edge of the penalty area and unleashes a wicked, curling howitzer that leaves David Seaman grasping at thin air. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley is fulsome in his praise of this sublime piece of skill. “A brilliant goal. A brilliant goal,” he shouts. “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney.” With one touch, Rooney seemingly became the future of Everton, the future of England, the future of football. He was just 16.
The following morning, Moyes’ office was inundated with phone calls from concerned Everton fans. After the game, the young tyro was spotted on the streets near his home in Croxteth having a kick about with a group of mates. Surely this couldn’t be happening?
Rooney’s impact at Everton was instant. During the 2002/03 campaign, Everton, boosted by his extraordinary ability, seemed destined to clinch a Champions League place, only to fall away at the end. Nevertheless, within 12 months, he became the youngest player to appear for England, making his international debut in February 2003.
We have a strange way of treating our footballing deities. We sometimes appear to value insincerity and celebrity more than a person’s actual achievements and accomplishments. Quite simply, Wayne Rooney is the best British footballer of this century yet somehow he still doesn’t receive the recognition or accolades that he deserves.
To the London-based mediarati, he never displayed those levels of apparent urban sophistication exhibited by the likes of David Beckham or Jamie Redknapp. In the early 2000s, when the essential accessory for any aspiring player was a wannabe pop warbler à la Victoria Adams or Louise Nurding, Wayne was involved with his childhood sweetheart and future wife, Coleen McLoughlin.
Unflattering photographs of her emerging from school in drab scholarly uniform and parka were splashed across the tabloids. The contemptuous sneers were there for all to see. Nevertheless, by the time of the 2018 World Cup, players such as Harry Kane were lauded for their stable relationships with homely girls from humble backgrounds. Rooney was simply ahead of his time.
His defining characteristic was that he played for the team, never just for himself. Whilst the likes of Beckham would ensure they celebrated their infrequent goals in full glare of the cameras, Rooney accepted the congratulations of his grateful teammates without manipulating the event to become the centre of media attention.
It still defies credulity that when he made his first appearance on BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2003, he was lambasted in the media for chewing when interviewed and not having a straight tie. Somehow, he never shook off the preconceptions of certain hacks who continued to view him as an uneducated prole, so it was reassuring that after his first-ever appearance as the expert on Sky’s Monday Night Football show that his insight into the game and his perceptive analysis won plaudits from all quarters.
His goalscoring record for England is simply stunning. He surpassed Bobby Charlton’s long-standing record by notching 53 goals, a feat that will take some beating. Some cynics derided this achievement, claiming that the proliferation of fixtures played against lesser ranked nations somehow devalues this feat. Strangely, nobody seems to comment that when the venerable Charlton was plying his trade, neither Germany or Holland had professional leagues and the only side in the world with the slightest inkling of how to defend was Italy.
Yet, it does the man a major disservice to focus on his goalscoring prowess alone. Rooney was the complete footballer. He demonstrated a full array of passing skills, creating numerous chances for his teammates. His record of 103 assists is the third highest in Premier League history. His positional awareness was sensationally intuitive, displaying the art of being in the right place when needed. His contribution to the team ethic is often overlooked and, unlike others, he was prepared to play out of position whenever the needs of the team demanded it. Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo hold a massive debt to the part Rooney played in their success at Manchester United.
Injuries cost Rooney dearly, both in European Championships and World Cups. No English player has even come close to his breathtaking appearance in Euro 2004, when his dazzling footwork and finishing produced four goals in as many games, before a broken metatarsal ended England hopes. Unlike many who went through the motions, he loved donning the national shirt and wore it with pride.
During his magisterial pomp at Manchester United he won five Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League, a Europa League and a Club World Cup. He is Manchester United’s all-time top scorer with a total of 253 goals in 559 games, and is the second-highest scorer in the history of the Premier League with 208.
There is no doubt that the £20m Sir Alex Ferguson agreed for him was an absolute steal. Rooney repaid that fee several times over with match-winning strikes such as the stunning overhead kick that sealed victory in the Manchester derby, a piece of sublime virtuosity that few others would have the gallus to consider let alone attempt.
Yet, unlike the mercenaries who claim to have been lifelong United fans when they sign for the club, Rooney never claimed to be one. His heart was always with Everton, despite the acerbic antagonism that was directed towards him for years after his controversial switch to Manchester United. The revelation that he still wore Everton pyjamas during his time at United showed his affection for the club despite the vicious, verbal, vitriol that accosted him whenever he appeared in a United shirt at Goodison.
Playing in an Everton top at Duncan Ferguson’s testimonial, a heartfelt appeal to the fans to allow him to watch the club he loves with his young children turned the tide and set the scene for an emotional return to Goodison for the 2017/18 season.
Although a far slower player, he still possessed the ability to conjure up a piece of sublime skill, as demonstrated when he delivered a stunning shot from deep inside his own half against West Ham to win the Goal of the Season award. He could still produce a mesmerising magical moment of mastery that no other footballer would dare to attempt. Despite playing in a struggling side, he still finished as top scorer with tengoals. Sixteen years after he first appeared at Goodison, the deftness of touch was still there.
Rooney was the complete footballer. He has performed at the pinnacle of the professional game for over 17 years. In 2016, Sam Allardyce responded to apparent criticism of Rooney’s role in the England team after a narrow win in Slovakia by simply stating, “He’s Wayne Rooney. I can’t tell him where to play.” Genius generates its own rules.
In the twilight of his career, today he remains the Rosetta Stone of strikers, truly deserving of his place in the pantheon of modern football legends. These days Henry is paid to sell Renault cars. If you still want to see a Porsche, Wayne is your man.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan