Has Wayne Rooney lived up to the hype?
When Wayne Rooney trudged off the pitch in Warsaw on Wednesday night, downcast after another largely listless display in an England shirt, it was an all too familiar sight. His career has been pockmarked by extreme highs and depressing lows and here he was again, five days after captaining his country against San Marino, departing the action early, having had the worst passing accuracy of any visiting player, to be replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It is a familiar pattern for a player who turns 27 next Wednesday. Only in October last year he was sent off in Montenegro for foolishly kicking out at an opponent and earning the ban that ensured his absence from England's first two fixtures at the European Championship.
Although he did find the net against the host country in England's final group game in Ukraine, it was his first goal in a major tournament for eight years. After his explosive four-goal impact at Euro 2004, there was the red card for a reckless challenge on Ricardo Carvalho at the 2006 World Cup and the less said about his contribution – and angry rant into a TV camera – in South Africa the better.
There is a danger of asking the George Best question – where did it all go wrong, Wayne? – of a footballer who has won four Premier League titles and one Champions League with Manchester United, yet it is hard not to wonder, on the 10th anniversary of his first goal in the Premier League, whether we got what we expected from the kid from Croxteth.
When ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley uttered his memorable phrase "Remember the name..." as a 16-year-old bullock in a blue shirt unleashed a curving, dipping, last-minute strike past England goalkeeper David Seaman on 19 October 2002, it seemed like anything was possible.
Rooney's first league strike had ended the 30-match unbeaten run of champions Arsenal, bringing a 2-1 victory for his boyhood team Everton and lifting the roof off Goodison Park.
It was a goal that left us spellbound with the possibilities of his talent, though while the football world wondered just what might lie ahead, Rooney simply went home to his parents' Croxteth terrace house and had a kickaround with friends.
As introductions go, Seaman himself likens its impact to Michael Owen's famed World Cup strike against Argentina. "It wasn't a lucky or instinctive strike, he actually gave me the eyes," he told The Independent. "He looked like he was going to put it to my top left corner, gave me the eyes a bit and got a great connection on it and it crashed in off the bar. For a guy that young to have that quality and to be able to make those decisions in his mind that quickly, you just knew he was going to be something special."
Rooney's then Everton team-mate, Steve Watson, recalls: "He did it every day in training, but it says everything about the lad that he steps on to Goodison like it's another training session and does it against England's goalkeeper. Moments later he almost chipped him again – with a proper chip that landed on the roof of the net.
"He wasn't bothered about who he was playing against. The only guy I spoke to him about who he had enormous respect for was Alan Shearer. When we played Newcastle, Wayne said, 'I'd like to have a chat with him'."
His first Everton goals, a double against Wrexham in the League Cup made him the club's then youngest scorer. The Premier League record he held for a short while followed with his Arsenal thunderbolt and Rooney's second league goal two weeks later was almost as memorable: a slaloming run through the Leeds defence and low finish which brought Everton's first league win at Elland Road since 1951. It was almost inevitable that by the following September he had become his country's youngest scorer after netting in a 2-1 victory in Macedonia.
For those who had followed Rooney's development, none of this seemed a surprise at all. Ray Hall, Everton's former academy director, suspected that the young Rooney had greatness in his feet just months after signing him as a nine-year-old. "When did I realise we'd got something special? He played in an eight-a-side game six months later against Manchester United and performed a bicycle-kick like the one against Manchester City that won goal of the season. The ball came behind him, he shifted his body, bicycle-kicked it and it flew into the top corner. There was silence, then a round of applause from parents and spectators. I've never heard that in a youngsters' game but everybody who was there applauded. Not only did we realise we had something special but I think Man Utd realised we had something special, too."
Hall had been tipped off by a local scout, Bob Pendleton, and went to watch him one Sunday morning playing for his local team, Copplehouse Juniors. "When I got there it was like a who's who of scouts, the young boy was so talented it was untrue," says Hall. Pendleton adds: "You see some kids who get the ball and all they do is run with it, but he passed the ball and expected it back. He never passed in the penalty area, though."
Every person you speak to about Rooney's early years as a footballer has a tale about this or that moment of magic. Colin Harvey, the former Everton player and manager, was working as youth-team coach as Rooney worked his way up the ranks. He remembers: "I used to go and watch the Under-14s and Under-15s, but there was a lull in one of the games so I walked over to where the Under-11s were playing and this young lad picked the ball up on the halfway line and slalomed past about five players and lashed it into the top corner. That was it for me – I was a captive audience."
Harvey would drive Rooney back to De La Salle school after training sessions at Bellefield and, though the youngster was quiet, "he had an aura about him even then". It was thanks to Rooney that Everton reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2002, when he pulled off his shirt after scoring to reveal the "Once a Blue" T-shirt that would come back to haunt him on joining United. "He was still at school when he got the team to the FA Youth Cup final [in 2002]. We played Man City in one game and they had three or four really good players and he scored two goals from the halfway line. He practically got us to the final on his own. Every Monday, Walter Smith used to say to me, 'What did he do on Saturday?' and I used to have the video people make a tape of all the stuff he'd done and he'd marvel at it."
Kevin Campbell, Rooney's first striker partner in the Everton first team, had a glimpse of his promise when paired alongside the then 14-year-old in a reserve match. "The reserve manager, Andy Holden, asked me to play with him like it was the first team," Campbell says. "I thought this was strange as he was only a kid but after five minutes I realised he was special. Usually young players are raw in some areas but good in others; he was good at everything, his touch, his pace, his strength. We were playing against men and he was more than holding his own."
By the time Rooney started training with the first team towards the end of his final year at school, it was just a matter of time. "He was coming into training sessions with seasoned first-team defenders and mixing it with them and in many cases these were battles he was winning," remembers Steve Watson, now coach at Birmingham City. "It was the way he could strike a ball, too. At such a young age he had such a clean strike."
David Weir, another of that Everton team now working with the Goodison reserves, recalls how Rooney was "in awe of Duncan Ferguson" and, like his boyhood hero, "had a little nasty streak which showed itself occasionally, which is always a good thing for a footballer". Yet, contrary to some people's preconceptions of Rooney, he was "very respectful" as well.
More than anything, it was his love of the game that shone through. "He was always first out and last in, he'd always be practising his shooting and free-kicks, and you'd see him in goal as well. He'd do everything. He looked like a kid who liked football – a lot of the younger lads now like being a footballer whereas he genuinely likes football. He can play a lot of positions and genuinely thinks he can be good in a lot of them"
That is one thing that has not changed. His last appearance in a United shirt came in an advanced midfield role and, 10 years after his breakthrough goal, Steve Watson sees a more complete player. "You can put him in almost any position in the front six now and he can do a job. He has leadership skills, he has vision and awareness, he seems to have picked up things from players like Paul Scholes."
It will be interesting to see how this versatility serves Rooney as he approaches his thirties. He admitted recently his body had taken a "battering", revealing in his book, My Decade in the Premier League, that he now struggles to walk for the first half-hour when he gets up on the morning after a game. "Footy has had a massive impact on my body because my game is based on speed and power," he says.
Rooney has known his share of controversies, on and off the football field, but this revelation recalled how much has changed since he picked a ball out of the air, gave the England goalkeeper the eyes and sent it flashing into the Park End net. "I said, 'He's going to hit this'. It was the way he turned and his body went over the ball. As he turned, the old shoulder went down and wooph," recalls Bob Pendleton, the man who had spotted Rooney.
Then, a world of possibilities was just opening up. "The thing is about Wayne, he showed no fear at all," remembers Lee Carsley, another old team-mate. "Rooney's gonna get you," sang the Evertonians when he visited Anfield for his first derby match – and with his teenager's confidence and captivating raw talent he inspired the belief that he would get them and just about everybody else, too. It was like seeing a superhero test out his exciting new powers and it continued for a time in an England shirt, too – bang in four goals as an 18-year-old at a European Championship? Easy.
Sadly, the problem with getting older, as Rooney has since discovered and Warsaw showed us once more, is you find out you are only human.