Wayne Rooney: The Big Man is Back in Town
The 2nd April is not a date that many remember. Coming the day after April Fools Day, it is another one of those nothing dates that mean little to most unless you have a particular anniversary or birthday on that date.
In 2003 however, it was the day that Wayne Rooney beguiled the nation on his first start for England, aged just 17 and a half. It came against Turkey at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland, in a crucial Euro 2004 qualifier.
Rooney did not score on that day, as England won 2-0, but he gave a performance of such footballing maturity that few who saw it will ever forget it.
He had already dazzled in the Premier League, but this was international football, with an England side who for decades had cried out for technically gifted leaders who could elevate the team to greater heights than for many a year.
Many had tried, Gascoigne, Hoddle, Barnes, their flames had flickered, sometimes dazzled, mostly burned out too quickly, but this kid looked different. He was built like a man, he had immense power, self-confidence, technical ability, and a ferocious work-rate.
For the next year Rooney's star continued to rise. There were questions about his temperament, but his performances were usually so high that those questions were easily put on the back-burner.
I loved Rooney in this early period, he was honestly the best English player I had ever seen, and my father-in-law, in his eighth decade, who had seen Lofthouse, Matthews, Finney, Charlton et al in their pomp, told me exactly the same thing.
After Rooney limped off against Portugal in the Euro 2004 quarterfinal on June 24th 2004, he had played 17 times for England and scored nine goals. He was still a teenager, and English men and women everywhere wondered just how good this kid was going to be.
Surely he was going to be the one who would really make an impact on the world stage, our own Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane—a player who the team would be built around for the next 10-15 years.
Then, for whatever reason, over the next four years Rooney's performances for England began to falter. Were we expecting too much too soon? Was his burgeoning Manchester United career taking precedence over England? Did injuries take their toll as they had on Michael Owen? Was his temperament too fragile? Was he badly managed by Eriksson, and then McClaren?
In truth, all of the above probably had some kind of impact on Rooney's loss of form for his country. I am keen to point out that this is all relative. A 25% on form Rooney is still more dangerous than most other English forwards, such is his ability, and Rooney was still playing majestically for Manchester United for the most part, and majestically for England on occasion.
But, between October 9th 2004 and September 6th 2008, Rooney played 28 times for England and only scored five times, three of those in friendlies. Only once in that period can I remember a truly stunning Rooney performance, to match those of his early international period, when England defeated Argentina 3-2 in Switzerland in a prestige pre-World Cup 2006 friendly.
That was back on November 12th 2005, and from then on, I began to question whether we would ever see Rooney back to what he was. This was not about fulfilling his potential, this was about being as dynamic and dramatic as he was as a 17-year-old.
Again, like Michael Owen before him, in my opinion, Rooney seemed to be getting, if anything, worse with age. At best he was stagnating, he certainly didn't seem to be getting any better. I wondered whether in the end, the best memories of Rooney I would ever have would be those of Turkey on his first start, and from Euro 2004.
Now it is early days under Fabio Capello, but for the first time in a long time, I am truly excited again about what Rooney can achieve with England. Five goals in three games after five in the previous 28. In anyone's book, that marks a dramatic return to form.
It is not just about goals though. Rooney looks sharp and fit, he has barely made a bad tackle recently, he has not berated the referee with all the grace of your local chav, his control has been exquisite, he is at the centre of most of England's good play, and he is playing the game with a smile on his face and with controlled aggression.
In short, he looks to have finally grown up.
Okay, so the opposition have not been Brazil, Germany, and Italy, and I am sure his harshest critics and England haters will be quick to point out that none of Croatia, Kazakhstan, or Belarus are likely to figure too highly in the World Cup winners betting.
I cannot answer those critics, as only time will tell if this is a false dawn, or the start of phase two in the Rooney march towards world domination.
Whatever the future holds, right now it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that Rooney is back. I know many Manchester United fans will be saying "has he ever been away?", well for you maybe not, but for England, surely few could argue that Rooney has been a shadow of his former self.
It would be easy to give Capello all the credit for Rooney's apparent transformation, but in truth, it's down to Fabio, Ferguson, Heskey, etc. etc., but most of all, it's down to Rooney himself. Only he can fulfil his own potential, and if he can maintain his current form for England, then we can all start to dream again.
As a Liverpool fan Rooney is never likely to be my favourite player, for obvious reasons, but when he is playing as well as this for his country, as an Englishmen it is difficult not to fall in love with him all over again.
Watch out world, the big man is back, and I couldn't be happier.
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