Rooney must prove he's not on the Wayne

Once a blue, always a blue. Scrawled on a white vest, it was the slogan with which Wayne Rooney announced his arrival on the Goodison Park stage after scoring in an FA Youth Cup tie.

Barely two years later, he was forcing his way to Manchester United. "They're stealing our boy, they're stealing our boy," the Everton chairman Bill Kenwright lamented, fighting back the tears as the deal went through.

Thirteen years later the boy is back at Everton and, for all the very obvious reasons to feel that the Merseyside club are taking a risk, it feels hugely gratifying to see him in the royal blue once more.

Everton's eagerness to bring "home" their prodigal son has been matched only by his desire to return to the club he always dreamt of - literally so, he insists, even disclosing on Sunday that he has continued to wear Everton pyjamas while lifting trophies and breaking records at United.

It is a move that should warm the heart of every football romantic - and there are few more unashamedly sentimental than Kenwright, the theatre impresario, who has been a driving force behind this transfer.

One cannot talk of a romance reborn, though, without acknowledging the very real challenges that Rooney and Everton face if they are to make this work. This is a footballer whose career has been on a downward trajectory for longer than he might care to acknowledge. Over the past year or two, that decline has been sharp.

The notion of playing out his days in blissful contentment at Everton is a little like that notion of him settling back into midfield - it requires a recognition that it is a long time since Rooney has been able to play the game on his own terms.

Rooney's first battle at Everton is not to take the club to the next level, or to instil a trophy-winning mentality in the dressing room, but to show that he can play a significant role on the pitch.

In stark terms, he is leaving the Premier League's sixth-best team last season to join the seventh best. Even as United struggled for goals, few proposed that a labouring, misfiring forward line would be better for his presence.

It has been a similar story with England since Gareth Southgate took charge.

He is joining an Everton team who scored 62 Premier League goals last season (to United's 54), playing some excellent football under Ronald Koeman. He will have to raise his game considerably if he is to claim - or rather justify - a regular starting place.

Koeman's statement that Rooney is "only 31" rather misses the point. There are many top-class players whose powers endure long into their fourth decade, but Rooney, as Sir Alex Ferguson observed from an early stage, has never seemed likely to be one of them.

One reason is his physique. Another is that, having been a first-team regular at Everton from the age of 16, he has 755 senior appearances on the clock for club and country. Unlike, for example, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Ryan Giggs, his physique - and indeed perhaps his mindset - has never seemed to lend itself to extreme longevity.

Rooney's first battle at Everton is not to take the club to the next level, or to instil a trophy-winning mentality in the dressing room, but to show that he can play a significant role on the pitch.

His unsuccessful attempts to reinvent himself as a ball-playing midfielder - something to which Jose Mourinho, unlike Louis van Gaal and Roy Hodgson, felt him ill-suited - have been based on his belief that he no longer has the pace or power to cut it as a centre-forward.

It would be quite a leap of faith for Koeman to ask him to fill the scoring void left by Romelu Lukaku, who has joined United. Even if he is regarded purely as a replacement for Ross Barkley in the starting line-up, Rooney will have to raise his game.

Rooney has not taken the easy option, though. If he had merely wanted a final payday in his career, he would have gone to the Chinese Super League. His feeling of unfinished business is to be applauded, as indeed is a sense of romance. This is his opportunity to redefine his tainted legacy at the club he loves. That love is not in doubt. Neither is the size of the challenge.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline 'Rooney must prove he's not on the Wayne'. Print Edition | Subscribe