Teenage sensation Wayne Rooney burst onto the national stage in October 2002 following a 10 minute cameo appearance against Premiership Champions Arsenal. The 16 year-old, still an amateur, came on as a substitute for Tomasz Radzinski in the 81st minute with the match deadlocked at 1-1 and within minutes he had beaten England number one David Seaman with a wicked, dipping, swerving drive from 25 yards. The celebrations that ensued communicated the relief and joy of the Blues supporters as they recognised a 24-carat superhero and a devoted Evertonian to boot.
In the Blues’ following match, against Leeds United at Elland Road, Wayne was on target again scoring the games only goal – this time with a meandering run from the half-way line capped by a cool finish from just inside the penalty area – and again the travelling Evertonians went ballistic as if their prayers for a star of the future had finally been answered. Wayne then went on to be pivotal to Everton’s revival during the 2002-03 season.
It’s hard to believe that just 6 months previously, Wayne had been in Everton’s youth team playing an important role in their run to the 2002 FA Youth Cup Final scoring 8 goals in 8 games, and by the start of the 2002-03 season, rumours of his talent flooded the Everton grapevine. Yet he was still unknown when he scored an amazing wonder goal in an FA Youth Cup-tie at Tottenham that had Glenn Hoddle and David Pleast turning to Everton officials and asking, ‘Who is this kid?’.
From his debut in August 2002 against Tottenham at Goodison, during which he set up the opening goal for Mark Pembridge, Rooney dominated Evertonian thoughts and, following his immediate conversion into ‘Roonaldo’ in the wake of his single-handed demolition of Arsenal and Leeds, he became a symbol of hope for the entire nation and there were soon calls for his inclusion in the full England team. Wayne was subsequently voted BBC young Sports Personality of the Year 2002.
Almost inevitably, Rooney became England’s youngest-ever player, aged 17 years and 111 days, when he made his international debut against Australia on 12th February 2003 – his first touch being a delightful exchange of passes with Newcastle United’s Jermaine Jenas. This was followed by an appearance as a substitute against Liechtenstein in a 2-0 England win. Yet controversy preceeded the national side’s Euro qualifier against Turkey, with many claiming Wayne was too inexperienced to face a team that finished fourth in the 2002 World Cup. However Eriksson’s brave decision to play the youngster ahead of Liverpool’s Emile Heskey was fully justified with a glorious ‘man of the match’ display that raised England’s game to new heights.
Rooney, at 17 years, 160 days England’s youngest full debutant soon confirmed his talent with those present sensed they were witnessing the birth of a phenomenon. After a quiet start he took the game by the scruff of the neck, making two trademark runs that sparked a great England performance and contributed much to England’s eventual 2-0 triumph – his dream debut was completed with a nomination as man of the match.
Wayne then went on to make two more successful appearances for England against Serbia & Montenegro and Slovakia before he scored the winner against Macedonia to re-write the record books and become England’s youngest ever goalscorer. The following England game was Liechtenstein and once against Wayne proved his ability and scored.
After this it was clear than Wayne had no established himself as a first team England international and after several more fine performances in a England number 9 shirt it was obvious he would be a starting striker in all of England’s Euro 2004 matches.
To put Rooney’s talent into perspective, pundits and footballing legends have already likened Wayne’s slaloming dribbling style to greats like Roberto Baggio, Paul Gascoigne and Pele while old pros insist that his awareness for a lad his age, is exceptional. The main feat for Evertonians must be that he avoids wearing himself out at too young an age. Yet, perhaps Everton chairman Bill Kenwright put it best when he called on everyone – from club to country – to ‘cherish’ the lad’s talent.
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