Is Wayne world class?
'Wayne Wonder!' screamed the headlines, after a 16-year-old Rooney came off the bench to strike a sensational winner for Everton against Arsenal in October 2002. He had the world at his feet - but did he fully take his chance in the years that followed? Jon Holmes takes a closer look...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 04/04/14 1:10pm
A hat-trick on his Manchester United debut. A place in UEFA's Team of the Tournament after starring for England at Euro 2004. Five Premier League titles. Champions League and Club World Cup glory in 2008. That incredible bicycle kick in the Manchester derby.
Wayne Rooney's achievements are manifold but regardless of the amount of medals he collects during his career, one issue will always remain up for debate. Is he genuinely 'world-class'?
That definition is difficult to quantify, but most would agree that 'world-class' status transcends individual honours and international recognition. It's about attaining a level of X-factor experience that enables the player in question to consistently make a match-winning impact. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez clearly fall into that category - but whether Rooney deserves to sit alongside them at football's top table is a moot point.
There's no denying Joey Barton loves a good debate (regardless of whatever else you may think about him) and the question of Rooney's status among the elite was on his agenda this week. The QPR midfielder - himself an Evertonian, and in 2007 a one-time England squad colleague of Rooney's - is not prepared to place the United star in that upper echelon.
I would have to argue that he has not been better since he broke on the scene at Everton. For me thats when he stopped developing or just..- Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton) April 3, 2014
...afterwards. As I say, he is a top player. My favourite of the current bunch. Love watching him. Old school. But not World Class IMO.- Joseph Barton (@Joey7Barton) April 3, 2014
In this instance, Barton puts forward an interesting argument. In those early days at Everton, there was a feeling that Rooney's natural ability would be accentuated even further and propel him into football's firmament of stars. The blue half of Merseyside had been forced to watch on in admiration as another young talent, Michael Owen, earned countless plaudits for Liverpool and England. Now they had a wonderkid who would at least match up, and potentially surpass, that of their rivals. As Arsene Wenger said nearly 12 years ago: "If Owen is the perfect goalscorer, Rooney is the perfect professional."
In reality, nobody's perfect - but there was a purity about both players. Owen, then 22, already had over 100 goals in a Liverpool shirt, plus a Ballon d'Or and a triple haul of cup winners' medals from the previous year. Just 16, Rooney was the blue-eyed boy of all Evertonians, a tyro of terrific potential who had struck eight times as he and his fellow Toffees teenagers reached the 2002 FA Youth Cup final.
As it transpired, by August 2004, the age of innocence was over for both of them. Owen took the Anfield throne from Robbie Fowler but his ambitions always seemed skewed towards the international scene rather than club life, meaning he never fully claimed the hearts of Reds fans. And when his contract ran down - allowing Real Madrid to swoop in and sign him for an £8million snip - the Kop felt he'd cashed in. Their relationship has been strained ever since.
Meanwhile, 10 days after a Bernabeu announcement confirmed Owen's switch to the Spanish capital, Rooney was also issuing a statement - a public apology, after a Sunday newspaper's revelations about his 'extra-curricular' exploits in the suburb of Aigburth. "Foolish as it now seems, I did on occasions visit massage parlours and prostitutes," confessed the 18-year-old, by then already engaged to childhood sweetheart Coleen. Naturally, such a misjudgment off the pitch had no discernible effect on Rooney's passionate application on it, and his £25.6million transfer to Manchester United went through at the end of the month. But the phrase 'perfect professional' no longer seemed appropriate, even then.
Nearly a decade later, there are still grounds for constructive discussion on the topic of Rooney's greatness. He could feasibly pass the 100 caps milestone before 2014 is out, but with every contract wrangle and controversy that comes along, his anointment - which truly arrived on a Saturday afternoon in October 2002 - fades a little further into our collective memories.
In their first 10 seasons of Premier League football, Everton had only finished in the top half of the table once. That they finished seventh in the 2002/3 owed much to Rooney, who hit six goals in 33 appearances and brought excitement and energy to their attack.
Meanwhile, having won the third 'Double' in their history the previous season, Arsenal had begun the campaign by setting another marker - a 2-0 home win over Birmingham on the opening day chalked up a club-record 14 straight Premier League victories.
Two full English records were claimed when Wenger's men triumphed 4-1 at Leeds United in late September. That was a 23rd consecutive unbeaten away game in the league, eclipsing a standard set by Nottingham Forest. The Gunners would go on to break that record again, in the build-up to the infamous 'Pizzagate' encounter at Manchester United in October 2004. Also at Elland Road that day, Arsenal scored in their 47th consecutive league match, breaking a 70-year-old record once set by Chesterfield. That would eventually be stretched to 55 games, and was also ended at Old Trafford.
By the time they arrived at Goodison on the 19th, Arsenal were 30 games unbeaten in the Premier League, and on this occasion, they were on the scoresheet in the eighth minute. Kanu miscontrolled Thierry Henry's left-wing cross and David Unsworth tried to head clear, but it was Kolo Toure who latched onto the loose ball and tried to dribble around the Everton defence inside the area. Li Tie made a tackle but only succeeded in nudging the ball into the path of Freddie Ljungberg, who had reacted more quickly than Joseph Yobo. The Swede lifted a close-range shot over Richard Wright for his first league goal in six months.
However, Everton equalised within a quarter of an hour. Tomas Radzinski found a gap between Gilberto Silva and Lauren and fed Thomas Gravesen, striding forward. When the Dane reached the top of the 'D', he released Lee Carsley into the right side of the area and the midfielder crashed a shot off the upright. The rebound came out to the edge of the area where Radzinski received the ball, skipped round Silva and then lashed home from 12 yards past David Seaman.
Seaman was going through a traumatic time. The criticisms which had followed England's World Cup exit, when Ronaldinho looped Brazil's quarter-final winner over his head in Shizuoka, were revived when he conceded an Artim Sakiri goal direct from a corner in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Macedonia in Southampton. That would eventually prove to be his last cap.
Before the first half was out, Seaman did show his worth though, his fingertips touching over a fierce Gravesen effort. After the break, Thierry Henry mishit a shot from Lauren's cross when well placed in the box. Again, Seaman denied Gravesen at the other end - diving to his right to push a left-footed drive round the post - while the woodwork was struck at the other end once more, this time by Sylvain Wiltord.
Then came Rooney's moment. Wiltord and Unsworth were competing for the ball in midfield, only for Gravesen to lump it upfield instead. Rooney's immaculate control in bringing it down enabled him to turn away from Lauren and set himself for a shot 25 yards out, with the Arsenal defence standing off him. There was just enough curl, loft and pace to take the ball over the head of Seaman, and in off the bar.
Seaman, who is supporting Football Shirt Friday due to take place on Friday 11th April, spoke to SkySports.com this week about his memories of that day.
"I remember a lot of hype about this young guy who was supposedly bloody brilliant," said the Arsenal legend. "I got a chance to watch him and then the goal he scored was incredible.
"For a guy of that age, the ability he showed was incredible. He didn't just place the shot off the crossbar, he also give me the eyes - feinting to go one side and then switching his foot and shooting the other way. He still owes me a drink for starting his career!"
A few days shy of his 17th birthday, Rooney became the Premier League's youngest-ever goalscorer and, although that record was broken by James Milner on Boxing Day 2002 (and subsequently by another Everton player, James Vaughan), he had made his first entry of note in the history books. Arsenal's winning rhythm was upset, and they would eventually concede the title to Manchester United by a five-point margin.
History will indeed remember the name of Wayne Rooney - he's achieved enough to ensure that - and the majority of United fans will tell you that he's been the club's best player again this season. But world-class? That chapter is still awaiting universal approval.
David Seaman was launching Football Shirt Friday in aid of the Bobby Moore Fund, supported by Ladbrokes. Wear your football shirt to work on Friday 11th April, and donate £2 to make Bobby proud. For more information, visit footballshirtfriday.org.
Watch Everton v Arsenal live on Sky Sports 1HD on Sunday, with coverage underway from 12.30pm.