Heart Of Football

Heart of Football: A little magic as Rooney dons old blue jersey again

Wayne Rooney had the good sense to beg reporters not to be silly and to stop trying to cast his Everton return in fairy-tale terms.

He's right there. Rooney knows his body, and he knows without spelling it out that, with his heavy build, the physical decline set in much sooner than it otherwise might. That is the dichotomy of the professional athlete:

If you are svelte like Roger Federer or Venus Williams, you might defy time. If, like Rooney, you appear to have come out of the cradle built like a young bullock, you have to carry that around beyond the capacity of the legs to maintain strength and speed and stamina.

The Rooney who left Merseyside as the costliest teenager in the world, when Manchester United paid £25.6 million (now the equivalent to S$46 million) for him in 2004, has run himself out as a Red Devil.

He turns 32 in October.

Not ancient. Not yet spent, if the desire to return to the blue shirt of his boyhood club is strong.

But the Mills and Boon practitioners in the media are fantasists, are they not? The reality is that United wanted their club captain off the payroll to such an extent that they gave him away to Everton for less than nothing.

How so? United apparently agreed to pay half the £15 million on his contract for the coming season, so that Everton can afford the other half.

Wayne Rooney scoring Everton's first goal in their pre-season friendly against Kenya's Gor Mahia on Thursday. The Premier League club won 2-1 with teenager Kieran Dowell netting the winner. Rooney aside, Everton have been spending big this summer, si
Wayne Rooney scoring Everton's first goal in their pre-season friendly against Kenya's Gor Mahia on Thursday. The Premier League club won 2-1 with teenager Kieran Dowell netting the winner. Rooney aside, Everton have been spending big this summer, signing six players for combined fees of more than £90 million (S$161.7 million). PHOTO: REUTERS

He was 30m from goal. He took a touch, swivelled full circle, and struck the ball with the inside of his right foot. It sailed above the opponents' entire defence and, at 95kmh, landed over the goal line.

That is cold, hard financial reality. Rooney is going home rather than going out to China or California, so to that extent he too is buying into the dream.

But he will be paid, at least for this one season, more than the top stars in Germany, World Cup winners and all, command.

With privilege comes pressure. Goodison expects to see at least vestiges of the kid who swore "Once a Blue, always a Blue" before turning red.

Irrational expectation. Yet three days ago, far away in Africa, Rooney did wear the Everton kit again. And after half an hour toiling under the sun, he suddenly did something extraordinary.

He was 30 metres from goal. He took a touch, swivelled full circle, and struck the ball with the inside of his right foot. It sailed above the opponents' entire defence and, at 95kmh, landed over the goal line.

We have seen this before. Way back in 2002, when Rooney was five days shy of his 17th birthday, he struck a comparable goal in the Premier League against Arsenal.

Comparable? It was more than that. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who began coaching before Rooney was born, observed that he had never seen a British player so gifted, so young.

Rooney's strike broke Arsenal's unbeaten run of 30 Premier League matches. The shot, which came down off the underside of the bar, bamboozled David Seaman, the best and most experienced England goalkeeper of the time.

"Remember the name," said the television commentator.

Some of us already knew it. We had seen Rooney, the schoolboy, breaking records set by Michael Owen on Merseyside before him.

We saw this kid with the temperament of a street-fighter barge, bully, and yet do things with a ball that were instinctively sublime.

He seemed to bypass youth. He was thrown into the Everton first team by David Moyes, a cautious manager. And, because Rooney had a foul temper, we also saw very early in his career how he vented his exasperation on Evertonians who struggled to be on his wavelength.

Over the years, Alex Ferguson was able to bully, cajole and to make Rooney an unselfish player.

The bullock didn't always look pretty on the ball, and his agent was a nightmare with the demands he made, the threats to prise Rooney away if United did not make him the highest-paid player in the land.

Chelsea, and ironically Jose Mourinho, fuelled that money-or-we're-out blackmail.

But Rooney got what he wanted, and he stayed to slay the ghosts of United's past. George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton were the Holy Trinity of history, yet one by one Rooney eclipsed their records.

He never had Best's fluent genius, or Law's irresistible quick wit, or Charlton's stature as the most adaptable, creative and loyal servant to United. But he played more games, and scored more goals than any of them.

He scored 253 times for United, and gave 127 assists. And, to boot, he broke Charlton's record of 49 goals for England (he has 53).

My admiration for Rooney is not unconditional. He has been too flawed a man for that. And his England record is unlikely now to be crowned, as Charlton's was, with World Cup glory.

However, we should not rule Rooney out of returning to the England squad. He has gone backwards, lost a bit of pace and aura.

Yet study the records. Since Rooney gained his first England cap, approaching 100 players have been selected for the country.

More than half of them failed to reach 10 appearances. Only Danny Welbeck made it into double figures with goals while Rooney was notching up his half-century.

What Rooney needs, and Mourinho denied him at Old Trafford, is a run of Premier League games to get that body going.

He always did need that because of his bulk, and even though he has worked like a demon on his fitness this summer, playing matches is a different kind of stress on the body.

Even so, his goal on Thursday showed that the magic is still there.

Yes, it came 11,000 km away in the Tanzania National Stadium. Yes, it was against a side from Kenya, Gor Mahia FC. And yes, it was a pre-season warm-up, for a spurious trophy sponsored by a gaming company.

But I tell you what: Stand with your back to goal at a distance of 30m. I'll do you a favour and not insist on five defenders, just the goalie.

Reckon you can control a moving ball, turn and hit the target? Me neither. It's a gift that hasn't, yet, deserted Wayne Rooney.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'A little magic as Rooney dons old blue jersey again'. Print Edition | Subscribe