In beating Sir Bobby Charlton’s Manchester United scoring record with the equalizing goal against Stoke, Rooney ensured that he would go down in Manchester United folklore. When one considers the caliber of attacking players that have graced the Theatre of Dreams since Charlton’s heyday, it is nothing short of exemplary that he has been able to achieve this. But the question still remains among the United faithful—where does Rooney rank in the pantheon of United greats? He isn’t “Mr. Man United” like Charlton or Giggs, wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent like Best or Ronaldo and wasn’t a charismatic figure like Cantona. So just how good was Rooney?
I will never forget the first time I watched Rooney play. It was October 2002 and Arsenal, the current champions, were on a roll. Even before they would go on to become the “Invincibles”, Wenger’s side was a formidable, record-setting side. They had won fourteen matches in a row (a record that still stands), scored in 47 consecutive games and went 22 away games undefeated. So when this bulky teenager pulled the ball out of the air with his right boot, angled himself into space and floated a fierce curler past David Seaman, it instantly changed Rooney’s life. Wayne Rooney was an overnight celebrity.
The next two years of Rooney’s football life brought more of the same. His first England cap, his first senior contract, and his first dalliance with controversy came shortly. But nothing could compare with what was to come. Enter Euro 2004—the most influential thing to happen in Rooney’s career.
Before the tournament, England’s danger men were widely considered to be Owen and the Scholes-Lampard-Gerrard-Beckham midfield. If anything, Rooney was to be a foil for Owen. But from the opening game against France, Rooney played like he belonged at this level. Four goals against Switzerland and Croatia helped England reach the knockout stages where they would meet the hosts, Portugal. Unfortunately for Rooney, a foot injury curtailed his (and effectively England’s) tournament. But with four goals in just four games, English football had a new hero. “White Pele” was born—for better and for worse.
Rooney’s Euro 2004 exploits changed his career trajectory immensely. He entered that tournament a promising player of the future, and left it as the England team’s new hope. Before long Manchester United pipped Newcastle United to his signature, thereby making Rooney the world’s most expensive teenager. His wages increased, endorsements rolled in and his fame grew exponentially. But as Rooney found out, these things came at a price. While his peers (Ronaldo, Tevez, Van Persie) could afford to fly under the radar somewhat and take their time to develop, Rooney had to deal with the English public’s overbearing expectations. His good performances were as overhyped as his bad performances were overblown. It obviously didn’t help that when Ronaldo reached his footballing maturity, constant comparisons were made between the two teammates.
By most standards, Rooney has undoubtedly had an amazing career. He will retire having won everything at club level and with numerous individual accolades (including being the record goalscorer for club and country). So how good was he? For me, he will go down as one of the great players of his generation. This despite the fact he had to spend most of his career fighting the ghost of “white Pele”.