‘Remember the name!’
The commentary which accompanied Wayne Rooney’s audacious winning goal against Arsenal in October 2002 will stand the test of time, a piece of audio inscribed into English footballing folklore.
But here’s the rub. Lovely soundbite though it was, Evertonians did not need instructing to commit Wayne Rooney’s name to memory. They already knew all about the buccaneering Blue charging his way through the Club’s Academy.
Indeed, Clive Tyldesley, the man responsible for describing Rooney’s sensational strike, all the more aesthetically glorious for clipping the crossbar after defeating England’s number one goalkeeper David Seaman on its way into the net, admitted as much last year.
Just a few months before Tyldesley implored the nation to lodge Rooney’s name in its collective consciousness as the 16-year-old gleefully sped off, leaping into the air in exultation, the ITV commentator had been ordered to do the exact same thing by a season-ticket holding Blue during a Goodison Park charity bash.
It was an open secret that Everton had something very special in Rooney, a footballer of preternatural majesty and incalculable potential. The sublime way Rooney cushioned Thomas Gravesen’s forward hoik, turned for goal and sent his precision strike beyond Seaman, merely let the cat out of the bag once and for all.
On that mid-October day, Arsene Wenger stood in the tight confines of Goodison Park’s tunnel, taking refuge from an early-evening sun and speaking about the teenager who had just reduced Arsenal’s unbeaten 30-game run to rubble.
The Frenchman puffed out his cheeks and smiled ruefully.
“He’s supposed to be 16,” sighed Wenger. A football man to the core, the Arsenal manager could not suppress his admiration for what he had just witnessed. Nor was he inclined to.
"At that age, Rooney is already a complete footballer,” said Wenger. “The guy can play. He's the best English under-20 I have seen since I came here (in 1996).
“He can play people in, he's clever and a natural, built like a Gascoigne with his low centre of gravity. And he can dribble – I like strikers who can dribble."
Colin Harvey was in on the secret six years earlier. Everton legend Harvey, a title-winning midfielder with the Blues, was managing the Club’s Under-18s and familiar with Academy coach Dennis Evans’ voice quickening with excitement whenever conversation moved on to the precocious Rooney.
Still, Harvey had his misgivings over quite how accomplished a 10-year-old could be. Then he watched him.
“The kid’s picked the ball up, slalomed past five players and stuck it in the top corner. You just go, blinkin’ ‘eck!” recalled Harvey.
As far as those who watched Rooney grow up were concerned, something along the lines of that coming-of-age goal against Arsenal was always in the pipeline. The sense of inevitably, however, did nothing to dull the exhilaration which greeted its event.
“It was my most pleasing moment… I think everyone was emotional on that day,” says Martin Waldron, Everton’s Head of Academy Recruitment. “Wayne gave us some magic times.”
The strike also marked out Rooney as an individual with the inherent confidence – and footballing arrogance, perhaps – to strut his stuff on the biggest stage and against the strongest opposition, a trait which possibly further explains why Wenger instinctively drew parallels between the Everton player and Gascoigne.
Gascoigne, though, was 21 when he won his first England cap. Rooney was representing his country within four months of his first Premier League goal – six months after his Everton debut in fact, when he was deployed in a wide midfield role on the opening day of 2002/03 against Tottenham Hotspur.
Rooney was utterly fearless that day. He possessed strength of mind and of body beyond his years, effortlessly withstanding the physicality of top-flight football and craving responsibility, sufficiently comfortable in his own skin to repeatedly demand the ball from more seasoned teammates.
His adventure, courage and assurance were startling. The same thought which Wenger later expressed would have run through the minds of a good deal of the 40,000-odd inside Goodison: He’s supposed to be 16.
Two weeks after flummoxing Seaman, Rooney subjected Leeds United’s entire defence to a similar ordeal. His turn and spellbinding run from deep followed by an angled finish secured Everton’s first league win at Elland Road in 51 years. The sheer brilliance of the goal and the joy it spawned made the wait worthwhile.
Rooney’s waltz in West Yorkshire was all about grace, artistry and balance. But he carried an intimidating aura, too.
When Rooney impudently came to a standstill and placed his studs on top of the ball, then his hands on his hips, while West Bromwich Albion defender Darren Moore watched from a safe distance, it provided a picture which will forever exist in the mind’s eye of those who witnessed it.
More significantly, Moore’s reluctance to engage with Rooney spoke of how the teenager was inspiring respect and terror in his opponents in equal measure.
The Everton youngster was already being granted a split-second extra on the ball, a yard of space more, simply because he was Wayne Rooney. Some wonderful footballers have taken years to earn such privileges. Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best of the lot in today’s game, was roughly three years at Manchester United before defenders chose standing off the Portuguese as their weapon of choice in a one-on-one duel, eschewing an earlier preference for trying to clump the wiry winger into anonymity.
Rooney’s hands-on-hips antics came roughly one month post-Arsenal. Fast forward a similar timeframe and he was to be found utterly unfazed by the cauldron of an Anfield derby, the coolest head in the house, casually spinning the ball on his finger while the latest in a flurry of skirmishes unfolded.
He nevertheless visibly relished the opportunity to get physical when it arrived in the shape of a put-out Chris Kirkland, Liverpool’s goalkeeper standing about eight inches taller than Rooney but sent back to his box with a flea in his ear and in no doubt this now 17-year-old was up for the fight.
“Rooney’s gonna get ya”, the Evertonians had bellowed, as their new superstar skirted the touchline, limbering up, thirsting to get involved. He was sent on by David Moyes early in the second half and so nearly made Nostradamus’s of all those packed into the Anfield Road End with a shot which deflected up and onto Kirkland’s crossbar.
Incidentally, when Rooney was at that same end of Liverpool’s stadium last December, planting the ball on the penalty spot, did you doubt him for one second? Rooney retains his capacity to deliver in the most oppressive of situations. Conclusively, too. The way he rammed his penalty high into Simon Mignolet’s net to earn Everton a 1-1 draw was reminiscent of a prizefighter moving off the ropes to deal out a concussive punch.
Back to December 2002 and the time of Rooney’s Merseyside derby debut. He was a phenomenon in this period, like nothing a generation of Evertonians had seen before.
“It’s all so natural to him,” Moyes observed at the time. “He's comfortable, does things in a subconscious way and has the ability to put the fear of death into people when he gets at them. I find myself thinking 'Wow' at what he does.”
Yet, not every doubter had been entirely won over. There were plenty questioning England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson’s decision to select Rooney for a critical European Championship qualifying match against Turkey in April 2003, when the player had only two caps, both from the bench.
For every quizzical eyebrow raised around the country, there was a chuckle of incredulity emanating from Merseyside. How could anybody still have any reservations about this boy?
It was perhaps when he advanced and threaded a beautifully disguised pass for Michael Owen that the entire nation truly cottoned on. England won 2-0. When Rooney opted out of the international game shortly after returning to Everton last year he did so as his country’s record goalscorer and with more caps than any other Englishman bar goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
There are some illustrious names in his slipstream on both counts. And figures of similar standing trailing him in Manchester United’s all-time scoring list, where he is perched at the summit after striking 253 times in his Old Trafford career. Rooney left United with winners’ medals from the 2008 Champions League and five triumphant Premier League campaigns. His trophy haul and individual records both stand as testament to his longevity and enduring excellence.
Rooney’s sense of timing never deserted him. Having netted on his comeback match in Everton’s pre-season friendly win against Gor Mahia in Tanzania with a near-identical strike to that Arsenal winner 15 years earlier, he would have known his every move was being scrutinised to the nth degree as he made his second Everton ‘debut’ against Stoke City in August 2017.
The multitude of cameras trained on Rooney filmed him picking up a gallop to travel into the heart of Stoke’s box and head home a precise cross from Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Rooney had been involved in the construction of the game’s only goal at its outset and again as the ball was shifted with increasing urgency through the middle third of the pitch.
“A winning goal at Goodison is a special moment,” said Rooney. “To play for this football club is a huge deal for me and to score the first goal back in the Premier League – and for it to be the winning goal – it does not get much better.”
He would hit a further nine Premier League goals in 2017/18, among them a crackerjack strike against West Ham United from inside his own half which showed Rooney’s penchant for the spectacular really is innate. Only a handful of players the world over would have tried to score in comparable circumstances.
That there was nothing on Rooney’s mind other than drilling the ball 58 yards into the back of the net after it alighted with him following goalkeeper Joe Hart’s clearance is enough in itself to set him apart from a mass of his contemporaries.
Also included in his 10-goal haul was another late point-saving penalty, this one at Brighton & Hove Albion. He contributed the decisive effort on Tyneside against Newcastle United and struck twice more in the 4-0 victory over West Ham on a night back in November when Rooney had seemingly added time travel to his box of tricks. He was untouchable, even before applying the coup de grace with his outrageous third goal.
The reaction in Goodison Park’s cramped press box when Rooney so stylishly completed his hat-trick was instructive. This is the part of the ground where goals are typically greeted with a busy mix of tapping on keyboards and earnest chatter. In this instance, the gathering of journalists, who probably thought they had seen it all, sat staring in wonderment, united in their smiles and applause.
The rest of Goodison, save for a miffed contingent from East London, revelled in the boldness and brilliance of it all, singing the name they know so well and which is about to be introduced to a new audience across the pond.
Wayne Rooney is still box office, no doubt about it. That counts for a lot where he is going.
Remember the name
- how can Blues forget?
We wish him well.