Wayne Rooney is the 'last of the street footballers' whose career has been the stuff of dreams. As the once boy wonder begins the transition from dressing room to dugout within the EFL, those who have watched him develop into both a man and a manager explain why his is a story that may never be matched...
In many ways, it’s easy for us to feel like we know Wayne Rooney on a personal level.
Part of the furniture for fans across the world for the best part of 20 years, we were told to remember his name upon his explosive breakthrough as a teenager, and he certainly hasn’t let us forget it since.
These days, his famous name adorns teamsheets in the EFL, and it’s here where Rooney’s timeless tale continues to unfold...
Some players are defined as great goalscorers, whilst others can be described as scorers of great goals. Wayne Rooney, however, sits among an elite group of footballing icons who fall comfortably into both categories.
“Unique,” says Michael Carrick, asked to sum up the striker in a word. “That’s the only way I can say it. He’s a legend of the game, and there’s no-one else like him.”
Carrick is better placed than almost anyone, having spent over a decade playing alongside him with Manchester United and England. In fact, more than half of Carrick’s appearances for club and country were shared with the Three Lions’ record marksman, making him Rooney’s most common team-mate.
"I still remember the first time I saw him with my own eyes; he was really young at the time, but I knew he was something special.
“I could talk all night about how good he is. He’s one of the best I’ve played with and has to be considered one of the all-time greats. Starting the way he did, coming onto the scene at such a young age and having the career he’s had since... I don’t think the goals even tell half the story.”
Indeed, Rooney’s playing career elicits memories for all of us, be it that first Premier League goal against Arsenal as a 16-year-old, the hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his Champions League debut or the iconic overhead kick against Manchester City.
As a player, he’s won the Premier League five times, the League Cup three times and the Champions League once; he claimed the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2002, the Golden Boy Award in 2004, PFA Young Player of the Year Award in both 2005 and 2006 and Premier League Player of the Season Award in 2010. And that’s just the very tip of the iceberg.
“I don’t remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pele at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden,” said former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson at Euro 2004.
Arsene Wenger dubbed Rooney “the greatest young English talent I have ever seen,” and upon signing him for Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson confidently stated “we have got the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years.”
Quite a reputation for a youngster and, without doubt, a sign of things to come. But, for some, the memories start even earlier.
More often than not, behind every key milestone and record broken, is an influential figure in a player’s past. In this particular case, there are multiple, but one man who played as big a role as anyone in helping introduce a young Rooney to the world was former manager, youth coach and club legend, Colin Harvey.
Harvey made more than 320 appearances for the Toffees, before taking charge of more than 150 games in the dugout. He later returned to the club to manage the youth team, guiding them to victory in the 1998 FA Youth Cup. Another Everton man through and through, his loyalty to the club has always been beyond question.
It was during his time as manager of the youth team that Harvey spotted a nine-year-old Rooney, and he knew almost immediately that he was destined for greatness. He even talked him out of quitting the game altogether just two years before that famous goal against the Gunners. It’s hard to believe that Harvey’s first experience of watching Rooney in action was actually a chance encounter, but what followed was written in the stars.
"I was a coach at Everton Academy, and on a Sunday I’d always go to watch the Under-15s or Under-16s because they were going to be the next lot coming though,” he recalls. Little did he know, the next star to rise through the ranks would be considerably younger than 16. The truth is, Rooney was turning heads before he’d even hit double digits.
“There was a coach called Dennis Evans, who was in charge of the Under-10 age group at the time,” Harvey continues. “I remember him saying to me beforehand ‘there’s a special player playing for the Under-10s at the moment,’ so I told him that the next time I was there watching, I’d come and have a look.
“There was a break in the Under-15 game I was watching because of an injury, so I walked over to where the Under-10s were playing to have a look and this kid picked the ball up on the half-way line and went on this slalom run, beating about four players in the process, before lashing the ball into the top corner. I turned to Dennis and said ‘well, that’s him then?’
“I stayed on and watched the rest of the game and he did exactly the same thing again towards the end of the match. You just knew straight away that he was something special. It was just the way he was; he was just born with this incredible and natural talent. There was no way I could forget his name after seeing that.”
And so began the ascent of one of football’s true greats. “The best English player of all time,” according to Harvey.
Rooney would go on to become the Toffees’ youngest-ever goalscorer with a brace in EFL competition, scoring his first senior goals in a 3-0 win over Wrexham in the League Cup.
The man who’d handed him his debut was none other than David Moyes, who himself had only joined the club earlier in the year following a highly successful spell with Preston North End. While Moyes would later manage Rooney for a second time at United, this was the beginning of a relationship that kick-started the striker’s career.
“The first time I set eyes on Wayne, we were playing Tottenham Hotspur in the Semi-Final of the FA Youth Cup,” he says. “Everyone had told me about this talented forward player and, of course, as I watched on that night, he scored. I said to him ‘you’ll be with the first team next season’; he just nodded his head and the rest is history.
That particular FA Youth Cup clash is one Harvey remembers well, for it might have taken Rooney down a different path.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says, laughing. “We were winning and Wayne had scored two completely different – yet equally brilliant – goals. They were both so clever and special in their own way.
Artwork: Dave Flanagan
"Glenn Hoddle was the manager of Spurs at the time and he was watching the youth team from the stands. When I walked back out after half-time, he came to me and said ‘we’ll offer you £100,000 for him, right now.’ I just turned to him and said ‘£10million wouldn’t be enough.’ That kind of money for a 15-year-old back then was almost unimaginable, but there was no way, absolutely no way.”
It wasn’t just Harvey and Moyes that he impressed that night, either. Fifteen-year-old Rooney was talk of the Everton training ground the following morning after catching the eye of the senior players, too.
“I remember all the lads being called into the coach’s room one morning to watch something,” Everton’s Director of Academy and current Under-23s manager, David Unsworth recalls.
As a player, Unsworth made more than 300 appearances for the Toffees, becoming one of the club’s finest servants. Having been in the side when Rooney first announced himself to English football, as well as in the dugout as a coach when he returned to Merseyside in 2017, and having watched on closely for all the games in between, Unsworth can certainly claim to have seen the former England captain at the peak of his powers.
“The coaches made us all watch some of the Under-18s’ Youth Cup match from the previous night. Wayne scored two of the most amazing goals I’ve ever seen. One was a free-kick that hit the wall and came straight back to him before he lashed it into the top corner from 40 yards. For the other, he controlled a cross on the half-volley, before slotting it into the net with his left foot.
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘oh my goodness, who’s this?’”
From that moment, it was only a matter of time before Rooney excelled on the Premier League stage. Sure enough, Rooney was handed his senior debut on the opening day of the 2002/03 season. Aged just 16 years and 297 days, he became the second-youngest debutant in Everton’s history and, shortly afterwards, would score his first goals for the club.
“Once he was part of the first-team set-up, he was actually quite a shy boy, but he was certainly confident,” Moyes goes on to say. He could do things that other players couldn’t, and I remember one particular eight-a-side game quite early on. We had staff dotted around the side of the pitch and Wayne chipped the goalkeeper from an impossible angle; we all just looked up the line at each other as if to say ‘I can’t believe he just did that’. He had incredible ability and was able to cope with the physicality of the men’s game.”
Gold dust for Moyes, no doubt, but Unsworth now had a job on his hands in training...
“We used to try to kick him!” he reveals. “Even before he made his debut and was just training with us, we all used to say, ‘who is this lad?’ But he kept getting better and better. I remember me and Alan Stubbs trying to boot him in training because he was just so quick and so powerful. It was ridiculous how good he was.”
After an impressive opening month of the season, seven further top-flight appearances followed for the teenage prodigy, before he truly propelled himself into the spotlight of fans across the nation.
Reigning champions Arsenal were the visitors to Goodison Park and arrived on Merseyside on a 30-game unbeaten run in England’s top tier. With the game level at 1-1, Moyes turned to Rooney for the final 10 minutes.
What came next was a defining moment of brilliance. Goodison Park had just witnessed the birth of a footballing superstar – “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney.”
“I remember thinking ‘what on Earth has he just done?’” says Unsworth, who was also playing for Everton that day. He’s one of the lucky 39,000 who can say ‘I was there’.
“I was right behind it, actually, watching it from the perfect angle. You go from a good player to a great player when you score winners and even more so when you score them in the last minute. It was a fabulous, fabulous moment.”
That effort made Rooney the youngest-ever Premier League goalscorer, a feat that would lead to a first England call-up just a few months later. As time went on, it was clear to see that Rooney was the real deal. “The best young player in the country at the time,” according to Unsworth and Stubbs, despite those kicks in training. A great goalscorer, a scorer of great goals and, most importantly, a terrific all-rounder.
The picture painted by those who watched Rooney play at a young age is one of someone born to play the beautiful game. Described by his former team-mates and coaches as a true street footballer, he’s never lost his childhood passion.
“One of my favourite stories was when Wayne had played for us in a game on a Saturday afternoon, and I got a report through on the Monday morning,” Moyes reveals.
“It said that Wayne had been out after the game, playing football with his pals, just hours after playing in the Premier League for Everton. He was young, and it showed you his love for the game. Where he grew up, that’s just what you did; it’s where he learned his trade.
"I remember having to tell him he couldn’t do it anymore, but probably more because I was frightened! When you look back at it, it’s a really great thing... he was humble.”
Humble. An oft-used word by those who know him, shared a pitch with him and mentored him along the way. Despite having a rare and natural talent that was always destined to take him to the top; as a youngster, Rooney was the model student, as well as a timid and unassuming youngster who just loved the game of football.
“You still wouldn’t have messed with him though!” reveals Unsworth, laughing, when asked about Rooney’s dressing room demeanour. He loved a laugh and a joke in the dressing room like any young kid, but he was quiet. Quiet but tough. That said, he did his talking on the pitch very early on.”
“I always used to get reports from his school saying that he worked hard and applied himself well,” Harvey adds. “He was the model student in that sense. There was never anything arrogant about him, he was just a really genuine kid who loved the game.
“I used to pick him up and drop him off at school in between training with us. He was very shy, but very polite. He knew how to behave around people. Despite being exceptional at what he was doing, he never let it go to his head.”
Had Rooney’s career underwhelmed following that goal against Arsenal, had his journey not lived up to its early promise, he’d still have achieved something that others could only have dreamt of. What followed though was perhaps beyond the imagination of anyone, including the boy wonder himself.
Like the moments that saw him acquaint himself with English football, the images of a fresh-faced Rooney holding up a United shirt with his name printed on the back in 2004 remain fresh in the memory. A move away from his boyhood club felt inevitable as interest naturally increased in parallel with expectation; but then, Rooney was no ordinary 18-year-old.
“Eventually, he’ll have all the records,” predicted United great Denis Law at the time, and the level-headed teen got straight down to business in the hope of proving him right.
“United and England’s top goalscorer... he’s had some career, hasn’t he?” says Carrick, who was handed the captain’s armband at Old Trafford when Rooney eventually left the club.
"When I first came United in the 2006/07 season, he was just unbelievable. I think people forget how quick he was! He was so fast and so aggressive when he ran at you, it was scary. Some of the counter-attacks alongside Cristiano Ronaldo that year were just amazing. I was almost chuckling away, playing behind them – I couldn’t wait to give them the ball and see what they’d do with it. It was an absolute pleasure.”
Like Harvey, Unsworth and Moyes before him, though, Carrick is keen to tell us the story of Wayne Rooney the man.
“I think what sums him up is this... he was captain when we won the FA Cup in 2016; it was his first trophy as captain of Manchester United, and he asked me if I wanted to lift the trophy with him. He was well within his rights to do it on his own, but went out of his way to ask me if I wanted to share that moment, which isn’t something most people would do.
"He’s so driven, he always gives everything he’s got, and ultimately he just loves football. He’s also very kind and generous with his time; he takes care of the staff and the young players, which is something people might not see so much.”
That FA Cup triumph was one of 16 trophies Rooney won with United between 2004 and 2017. To reduce his achievements at the club to a sentence feels like a disservice to one of the game’s giants but, such was his will to win, there are simply too many to delve into detail.
Some 15 years after his injury-time winner against Arsenal for Everton, it was fitting that his record-breaking 250th strike for United should also come right at the death, as he hauled them level against Stoke City. He would end his Reds career with 253 in total; a record unrivalled, alongside his 53 goals for England.
Now 35, there is no doubt at all that Rooney’s record-breaking career has set him up perfectly to influence the next generation of youngsters. Following a brief return to Everton and two-year spell in America with DC United, Rooney joined Derby County as player-coach in January 2019, and has made no secret of his desire to try his hand at coaching and management. Where better to start than in the Sky Bet Championship, arguably the most unpredictable and competitive division in the world?
Passionate, committed and merciless on the pitch; eager, hard-working and humble off it. With more than 700 career appearances and more than 300 goals to his name, it’s undeniable that Wayne Rooney’s is one of the biggest and most recognisable names in world football.
"I’m a big United fan and used to sing his name in the stands,” Derby’s 20-year-old Max Bird admits. Having progressed through the Rams’ Academy, Bird made his Championship breakthrough shortly before Rooney’s arrival at Pride Park, and is now approaching 50 appearances for the side.
“When you are walking out of the tunnel with someone you have looked up to from an early age and he is now your captain, it’s a dream come true. I know that’s a cliché, but it is. As youngsters, we need to take as much from these opportunities as we can and not waste it.”
Rooney commands a respect that few others have earned. It’s easy to see what he would bring to any dressing room and, with that, it’s no coincidence that a flurry of Derby youngsters have continued to impress with Rooney as their leader.
“It was completely unexpected, Wayne coming here to Derby, and now I’m training with him and playing alongside him too. I’ve learned so much from him in such a short space of time.
"He’s leader on and off the field, he’s helping my game a lot. When we play, I know that he trusts me, and I know I can trust him. As captain, he speaks when he needs to, but he is a very down to earth guy and a great person to have around the building. When we sit down for our pre-match meal, he often tells stories from his career. I could listen to them all day long. He has a huge impact on us youngsters.”
Rooney conveys the same passion and enthusiasm he had as a nine-year-old Evertonian playing for the club he loves. His role may have altered over time, but his hunger has not diminished.
“He’s got that total passion for football that’s never ever left him,” says Unsworth. “He loves playing, he loves training and he’s not one of those players that has the odd day off here and there.
“When I played with him in the early days and when he came back to Goodison in 2017, he was always the first one on the training pitch and the last one off it. He has a love of the game that you can’t teach or coach into someone. He’s a street footballer; he’ll play football anywhere, anytime and that will never leave him.”
Even now, after matches, his ritual remains the same. He returns home to watch the game back, analysing each and every minute played, and his former team-mate has no doubts about his ability to take control in the dugout.
“When you have achieved everything that he has in the game, you command respect. He speaks well and has this presence about him. When the time comes, he’ll be a fantastic manager.”
It’s a sentiment also echoed by Moyes and Carrick.
“I see a manager in him, and have done for some time,” says Carrick. “He’s got the character and personality to do it; he’s got that drive and will to win. Without a doubt, he’s also got respect from others for what he’s achieved, and that will stand him in good stead. Maybe one day we’ll come up against each other, you never know. What I do know is that I wouldn’t want to fight him in the dugout!
Moyes’ parting words say it all. “A glittering career. Wayne Rooney is undoubtedly one of the finest players England has ever produced.”
The beautiful game has enjoyed almost 20 years of Wayne Rooney. His dazzling emergence and subsequent career deserve to be ranked amongst the very best football has ever seen.
“There’s no doubt at all,” says Harvey, when asked if Rooney will go down as one of England’s all-time greats. “I knew as soon as I saw him that day as a kid that he’d be the player he was. I couldn’t believe the strength, the vision and the raw talent he had. He was so special. Even now, he’s still doing things people have never been able to.”
While many of us may never know Rooney personally, his impact on the lives of fans, coaches and team-mates across the globe is undeniable. The EFL, and football, are lucky to have him.
This feature first appeared in the December 2020 edition of the EFL magazine.