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London – On September 1, 2004, Wayne Rooney attended a press conference at Old Trafford at which he was introduced as a Manchester United player.
Rooney, 18 years old, spoke so softly it was difficult to hear him. To his right, hidden from view by the TV cameras and journalists without seats, his teenage girlfriend Coleen sat on a chair by a wall with her hands in her lap and stared hard at the floor.
Eight years on, much has changed. Rooney has just captained England in a competitive game for the first time and Coleen – now a wife and mother – was this week telling her 850,000 Twitter followers about a day modelling her clothing range.
The fundamentals haven’t really changed, however.
Ten years to the day since Rooney scored his first Premier League goal – for Everton at home to Arsenal – he remains as bullish, headstrong and compelling as he was back in the days when he was making his way in English football.
There are those who would change him, those who can’t see beyond the occasional snarl, the barrel chest and the attitude. They are quite wrong.
Rooney – who joined a team that contained players of the stature of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Roy Keane – has arguably been United’s most valuable and important player for much of his time at Old Trafford. At times he has been bumptious and he has been belligerent but rarely has that masked the depth of his natural talent.
There have been significant contributions during this period from Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ronaldo himself, of course. But as we look backwards and forwards today, Old Trafford’s favourite Scouser dominates the view.
One respected columnist bemoaned Rooney’s record with England and he has a point. We have not seen the best of him at a major finals since 2004 – his first. The same writer also questioned the striker’s hunger, though, and that is baffling.
Rooney’s pursuit of the football on an average Saturday or Sunday afternoon is almost obsessive in its fury. At times United’s shape would benefit from some restraint from their No 10 but his manager Sir Alex Ferguson has long since given up trying to tell him.
Like Keane and, indeed, David Beckham before him, Rooney views losing as a personal affront. When performance levels dip at United it cuts nobody deeper. Having scored a hat-trick on his United debut – in the Champions League against Fenerbahce – Rooney has spent much of the time since looking bemused as to why it can’t work out like that in every game.
As we would expect, there is more sophistication to his football these days. He passes the ball better and adapts more easily to the many different roles Ferguson has asked of him in recent years. It is almost inevitable that he will end his days playing in the centre of midfield.
The DNA remains the same, though. Rooney is a street-fighter who operates best when his blood is up and those who seek to criticise the occasional moment of rashness or obsess about his exact weight rather miss the point.
For those who love statistics, Rooney has scored 181 times in 371 United appearances. That ratio is substantially better than those of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, Mark Hughes and Andy Cole. Last season he scored 34 times for his club. The year before that it was a modest 16 (from only 36 starts) and the year before it was 34 once again.
England assistant manager Gary Neville said this week that his former teammate must improve. Even the best must evolve. Nevertheless, United must improve, too. Those who refuse to believe Rooney was seriously tempted by a move to Manchester City two years ago are in denial.
During their courting of Rooney, City told him he would play “every week” if he joined. It was some promise from the richest club in the world but it spoke volumes for his perceived worth.
Some dispute Rooney’s right to be labelled ‘world class’ but it depends on the parameters. Certainly he is not in the bracket of Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Xavi. Few are.
He would, however, get in the France team, the Germany team and the Italy team. Does that make him world class? Maybe. Take your pick.
What is important and indeed undeniable is that Rooney remains at the forefront of an increasingly magnetic domestic game and we should value him. He does need to do better in an England shirt, especially at major finals. The team do need to get to the next one first, though. – Daily Mail