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Thursday, October 23, 2008

A star is born

Against Everton Wayne Rooney could grab his 100th club goal - 17 of which came from his time at Goodison. Here, we track his path to Old Trafford...

Amid the pandemonium at Goodison Park, Clive Tyldsley bellowed: "Remember the name, Wayne Rooney." Moments earlier, the 16-year-old had announced himself to the football world by hammering a 30-yard injury-time winner against champions Arsenal.

Thirty-five miles down the East Lancs Road, knowing looks were exchanged. Master Rooney had surfaced on United's radar long before making a mug of David Seaman. He'd done the same to United's Schmeichel - Kasper Schmeichel, that is - at Littleton Road, against a United Under-9s side playing their first ever match.

“We hadn’t played any games before, the boys had just been training together,” recalls Paul McGuinness, now manager of United’s U18s. “We didn’t even have a goalkeeper, so Peter Schmeichel’s son Kasper played for us. He was the only kid we knew who played in goal! The Everton boys had been playing together for at least a year in a league beforehand, so they were used to playing games. You could tell, because they absolutely hammered us."

It wasn't just the scoreline (12-2) which stuck in the memory. All the talk was of a stunning goal from Rooney. “He scored a few (six to be exact), but there was one goal that stood out. It was basically the classic overhead kick, the perfect bicycle kick, which for a kid of eight or nine years old was really something special.”

“We were all wondering who this kid was,” recalls McGuinness. “It transpired that he was from a tough, boxing background, a sporting family and he was a diehard Everton fan. At that time you didn’t really get any kids crossing over to Manchester from Liverpool. We looked at it behind the scenes, but he was too fixated on Everton to contemplate leaving them.”

Keen to put a positive spin on the news that the new U9s had taken a double-digit hammering, McGuinness informed Sir Alex Ferguson about the 9-year-old talent that had done all the damage. “I remember coming back saying that we’d been beaten by 10 goals," he recalls. "You don’t generally want to advertise that fact to the manager - but I did mention that we’d seen a kid who had done very well."

Rooney continued his fast-track ascension through Everton’s ranks. The double hat-tricks and overhead kicks were harder to come by, but the competitive streak was even sharper.

“When we were playing for the U13s against Everton, me, Adam Eckersley and Mark Howard, who’s now left the club, played against him,” recalls United goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

“I think it was a 1-1 draw, and Mark and Wayne actually had an altercation which ended up with them both being sent off. That was pretty unheard of that level, usually it’s just a word to the managers asking if the offenders can be subbed off, but these were straight reds!”

Heaton would get several close-up glimpses of Rooney in action down the years, with one particular encounter at Altrincham’s Moss Lane in 2000 persuading United’s coaches that the Everton striker was realising his massive potential.

Tommy Martin, manager of United’s U15s, can vividly remember Everton’s number nine terrorising the Reds’ backline. “Overall we were too strong for them but he stood out on their side,” he smiles. “Wayne gave our defence a really tough time. After 10 or 15 minutes, you knew he was on the pitch because he was really upsetting our defenders. His pace always made him a handful.

“He was a winner back then – you could tell. He has changed in some respects, obviously, but even back then he was going back and tackling. He's always been in love with the game of football. For all the attention, fame and wealth it brings, I still see him as a kid in love with playing football.”

“I remember sitting with Jim Ryan watching him at Altrincham,” concurs Paul McGuinness. “We won the game 5-1, but I remember Jim saying ‘look at their number nine, he’s keeping at it and going all the time.’ He was running around after the ball and trying shots, and he really stood out in that game. We started following him closely from that point.”

One of United’s subsequent scouting missions, at Everton’s U19s clash with Bolton, yielded a breathtaking encapsulation of Rooney’s capacity for the incredible. Now the ripe old age of 15, he brought down a hoofed clearance from Bolton’s goalkeeper with his first touch and, still inside his own half, with his second lashed the ball back from whence it came. The helpless Trotters keeper could only watch as the ball sailed over his head, against the crossbar and back into his arms.

According to United’s chief recruitment officer Geoff Watson, however, the Reds’ keen interest wasn’t always fuelled by what they saw of Rooney in action – more Everton’s total assurance that they had a nailed-on player on their hands.

“He invariably scored a couple of goals, but sometimes you'd go and watch Wayne and he wouldn’t do an awful lot,” says Watson. “The important thing that struck me was that when you spoke to the Everton people they were always so confident that they had a star in the making. They were so convinced about Wayne's ability.

“It was obvious he was a special talent. So many people went to watch Wayne Rooney that it was easy to get an opinion about him, there was a big buzz about him. Everton knew what they'd got from an early age.

“Obviously we weren't always privilege to that – one thing you learn in this business is that the club always know better about their own player than anyone else. They see him every day, while scouts from other clubs only have 90 minutes during a match to judge him on.

“Scouts will tell you there were games they went to and he hardly did anything. Scouts can only report what they see – they can't dream. To be honest, I think Wayne was always waiting for the bigger stage.”

Progress couldn’t come quickly enough for the young Rooney. Having raced up through Everton’s youth ranks, he went on to star for the Toffees’ Reserves, while also playing an integral part in the U18s’ run to the 2002 FA Youth Cup final, scoring eight goals in as many games.

Just over five months after the young Blues had slipped to a two-legged defeat against Aston Villa, and still five days shy of his 17th birthday, Rooney acquired hero status at Goodison Park with his unbelievable maiden strike against Arsenal.

As the ball cannoned in off the crossbar at the Park End, some 200 miles away Sir Alex Ferguson was making his way to the Loftus Park dressing rooms, having watched United endure a frustrating 1-1 draw with Fulham.

As news filtered through of Arsenal’s defeat at Goodison, however, Sir Alex could reflect on the day with renewed positivity. Especially after discovering the identity of the scorer, a name with which he had long since been very familiar.

Roo plans Ever-TON

Hot-shot Wayne Rooney has a glittering goal in his sights – to score his 100th at former club Everton on Saturday. The Manchester United and England striker notched up club goal 99 against Celtic on Tuesday. Now he is on the brink of a double birthday celebration that would stick in the throats of the Goodison faithful. "It is always nice for any player to score 100 goals,” said Rooney, “But if I could do it at Everton, where I started, that would be really pleasing."
Bill Thornton, Daily Star