The word legend is one that can often be thrown around loosely in footballing terms, and a term that’s regularly doled out prematurely. The likes of Memphis Depay, Federico Macheda and Adnan Januzaj are but a few been names to have been toasted as the ‘future of Manchester United’ when bursting onto the scene at Old Trafford.
But never has a move been so anticipated in British footballing history than the day of August 31, 2004. In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that his quest to convince his board to splash out a then monumental fee (£25.6 million) on an 18-year-old from Merseyside raised more than an eyebrow or two. The boy in question was, of course, Wayne Rooney.
A blistering start can often be the worst thing that can happen to a footballer as it raises expectations of performance from the word go. Rooney was a player many believed predestined for stardom given that on October 19, 2002 the then 16-year-old curl home an unstoppable last-minute winner against Arsenal, ending the Gunners’ 30-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, which led Arsene Wenger to utter the following praise (via the BBC):
“Rooney is the biggest English talent I’ve seen since I arrived in England.
“There has certainly not been a player under 20 as good as him since I became a manager here.”
International football dreams soon became a fast-approaching reality as Rooney rejected an approach from Ireland aged 16 with hopes of becoming an England legend. In February 2003, he became the youngest player to ever take to the pitch for the Three Lions, before becoming their youngest ever goal scorer after scoring in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Macedonia seven months later. However, it was Euro 2004 that made Rooney a globally-recognised superstar.
The hopes of an entire nation rested upon the shoulders of a teenager. England had not achieved tournament success since their World Cup triumph in 1966 – and many legends before Rooney’s time had failed to bring glory back. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne had all failed before him. Rooney’s start was incredible – a brace against Switzerland in a 3-0 group stage win followed by another in a 4-2 victory against Croatia. Four goals in three group games gave England genuine hope of glory.
Unfortunately for Rooney, his tournament was derailed by an injury picked up in the quarter-final versus Portugal, a game England again lost out on by virtue of penalties. Many to this day still make the argument that this side was one of the greatest international teams to never win a tournament.
Seasoned professionals such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand were mainstays of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team, and had the then 18-year-old remained fit, many Englishmen as well as supporters across the world still maintain the belief that England’s then 38-year wait for a trophy would have come to an end.
It was his performances at Euro 2004 that earned him his move to Manchester United, one which Ferguson pushed the boundaries for, and a move that would prevail as ultimately one of the greatest signings in footballing history.
Skipping ahead, Rooney left Manchester United to return to Everton in the summer of 2017 – 253 goals and 16 trophies later. He had lived up to the expectations set for his teenage self, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s long-standing goal-scoring records for both club and country. He had won every single trophy that was on offer to him at club level – fired in double figures for twelve consecutive campaigns, yet somehow there still remains a debate among supporters as to whether he can be classified as a Manchester United legend or not.
Rooney’s 250th goal for United – the one which broke Charlton’s record – came in quite stark contrast to his first. His opening goal for the Reds was the first of a Champions League debut hat-trick, his 250th a stoppage time equaliser to rescue a point against Stoke City. A goal which came in acrimonious circumstance, with Rooney constantly left out of the starting XI by Jose Mourinho.
Never has a single strike sparked so much debate between a set of one club’s own supporters – some believing it established him as a true icon of the club, right up there with the Holy Trinity of Charlton, George Best and Denis Law – while others were less convinced, showing an indifference to a player they believed was unworthy of any form of high praise.
But why has Rooney’s status been so debated and extensively examined under the magnifying glass? Purely by instance of reputation.
Rooney had ultimately become a celebrity before he reached an age in which he was capable of handling such attention. There was simply no way of denying his world-class talent – every great Manchester United side of the late 2000s featured a superstar in its own right. While Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs stole the plaudits – it was Rooney who kept his head down and consistently fired in the goals, undeterred by the issue of floundering in and out of the limelight, yet never too far from the headlines by virtue of his private life.
The English press were ultimately a contributing factor in the demise of the country’s finest homegrown talent. They had decided that he was a man who could not be lauded for his heroics. They did not want their kids to idolise the Liverpudlian who would berate officials. They insulted his intelligence and more often planted him on the front pages of tabloids rather than the back of the broadsheet newspapers.
His sending-off at the 2006 World Cup led to him becoming a national scapegoat, just like David Beckham before him – yet there was a difference between Beckham and Rooney, the public forgave Beckham and decided to brand Rooney a villain.
While Manchester United supporters continued to adore their talisman, reports that he had asked to leave the club in 2010 ultimately led to a turning of the tide. The media linked him with a move to arch-rivals Chelsea, and chants of ‘Judas’ emanated from a Stretford End where he had never before been criticised.
People became indoctrinated by the idea that he had held such a great football club to ransom, demanding ridiculous amounts of money to stay put. When Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, the rumour mill went into overdrive with suggestions that Rooney would follow him out the door rather than work with David Moyes.
What fans and the press alike failed to realise with Rooney was that the longevity in his career at United perhaps instilled a desire for change. As put by Ferguson, fans were seemingly happy with Rooney as long as he kept scoring goals, but when they started to dry up drops of hatred and grudge began to fall on the Old Trafford turf. This became more of an issue in his twilight years at United, with Rooney moved into midfield by Louis van Gaal, before being granted less and less opportunity under the stewardship of Mourinho. However, seeing past all of this seems manageable – yet a temporary desire for pastures new remains with some United supporters as well as football fans alike unworthy of legendary status.
The problem with footballing headlines is that often fans find it harder to forget than they do to remember. The comparison evident with his former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo is one which also in a sense derailed his fanbase – as supporters are keen to point at Ronaldo’s continued successes and Rooney ultimately dissipating into thin air when it came to the world-class debate.
Ultimately, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn against the career of Rooney: he is simply a victim of his own success.
No player has scored more goals for Manchester United despite some of the great names to have adorned the red shirt. No player has found the net more times for England despite the wealth of great strikers the country continues to produce. The difference is that others are consistently adored for their on-field abilities, rather than scrutinised for off-field antics and berated for a mere blemish of inconsistency.
Whether you love him or hate him, there is simply no denying the fact that Rooney is both a Premier League and Manchester United legend, the only striking difference between himself and others is that his path to the status has taken a purely unconventional route, littered with instances of hatred and those desperate to see him fail.
Rotten tomatoes have been hurled at the pitch, but the net has been continuously found and in the future Rooney deserves to have a statue at Manchester United’s ground.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena