Blue-blooded, devoted and passionate, Wayne Rooney cared for little beyond Everton Football Club in his formative years.
Reared in the company of understated heroes like Limpar, Horne and Rideout, the youngster’s loyalty to a perennial underdog meant success arrived at intervals few and far between, feeling all the more deserving when it eventually came.
With humility beating out pride and entitlement, traits of honesty and mettle were consolidated against the wistful backdrop of suburban Croxteth and a toilsome childhood.
Far removed from the trophy-laden success he enjoyed at Manchester United, one could excuse Rooney for wanting to say the right things at his recent Everton unveiling, aligning trophies to the blueprint of the club he loves, yet quickly realising the last one came in 1995.
That day a nine year-old Rooney witnessed Everton prevail 1-0 over ‘the Red Devils’ on their way to lifting the FA Cup, and even today the same trophy remains the Toffees’ most realistic beeline to success alongside the league cup. But let’s not do the club a disservice in dismissing their top four reckoning qualities, particularly on the strength of a stellar campaign last time out.
Undeniably, the increased spending power of the club following Farhad Moshiri’s arrival in February 2016 has helped foster an ambitious overhaul in branding made unequivocal with Rooney’s return as prodigal son.
At any rate, the spine of the team now appears a lot stronger following the forward’s second coming, with the club’s identity taking on a spectacle of nostalgic consummation in a move of much expectation.
Some fans may err on the side of caution since the same tactic has been deployed previously with mixed results. Most of us will hardly remember Joe Cole’s return to West Ham in 2013 with the romantic pretence of the transfer giving way to largely indifferent form and injury shortly thereafter.
Such is Rooney’s profile however, the former England captain’s acquisition is huge for Everton in the wider global market, and it pays to remember the club lags behind the likes of Liverpool, United, Chelsea and Arsenal considerably in terms of overseas popularity.
As if living vicariously through his idol Duncan Ferguson and channelling his past as a fledgling boxer, the young Rooney of 2002 was fearless and ruthless with an intensity and speed-of-thought to his game made subtle through the physicality of his diminutive frame.
Take his goal at Charlton for example – feeling the attention of Mark Fish on his back as the ball was swung in by Gary Naysmith, Rooney turns the centre-half with his first touch, neatly controlling the ball to find space for a second elusive touch before the clinical goalscoring one.
Contrast this moment to the Rooney we’ve seen in recent years, namely the player operating as a deep-lying number ten spraying sideways passes. Sure, his distribution is fine, but there’s something sad in seeing the former teenage prodigy play so conservatively in a withdrawn role, and to think this style of play has marked the bedrock of his game for some years now.
In parallel with his change in playing style, Rooney’s on-field persona has evolved markedly too.
Though controversial, an argument can be made that Rooney’s game has buckled under the weight responsibility ever since he became a ‘responsible role model’ and captain.
We see great polarity in Rooney’s style of then and now, and, while Steven Gerrard’s game became more aggressive and dependable once handed the captaincy of Liverpool, Rooney’s appears to have been impacted negatively, with a more selfless attitude emerging in tandem with his deeper role.
As skipper, a self-conscious Rooney would second-guess pops at goal or look to make a square pass instead of exploiting space himself and taking on a man. Sure, you could see this as symptomatic of an ageing footballer without the yards of pace he once had, but consensus fast emerged that the virulent street footballing mentality of early years had disappeared, with his form taking a hit as a result.
Calling upon another Scouse footballer of the same generation, and indeed of a similar ilk, Joey Barton has thrived on a combative, hawk-like appetite through his playing career, channeling it as captain.
Despite stumbling upon similarly indifferent form in recent years, few would deny Barton remains a fuse waiting to be lit, for better of worse.
Conversely, most of us would concede Rooney has completely calmed down, having once held his own as the prince of dissent.
Appealing to this very idea, Rooney’s goal for United at Goodison Park in 2007 lay his habit for petulance bare, with the confrontational celebration that followed recalling other unseemly gestures directed at Evertonians as a United player.
But that was ten years ago. That was during the ‘reactive days’ of perpetual fight or flight mode and looking up to referees (not out of admiration, but rather to observe his fate).
Sure, our modern day Rooney still has his name taken from time to time, but we’ll never quite see a challenge as animated as the one he put in on future-teammate Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003, or the double whammy he dealt to Hull’s George Boateng and Andy Dawson in 2008 as an irritable individual with more of a deathwish than a desire to grow a quiff.
Significantly, the addition of a comb to Rooney’s life appeared to herald his refashioning as a celebrity in earnest.
Abandoning the bother boy image and sweeping aside all behavourial traits associated with it, the global icon began a young family with wife Coleen, got promoted to England captain after the 2014 World Cup, replaced his cathartic goal celebrations with a gently quivering hand of royal pomp, grew swiftly into an upstanding British icon, and even carried out a display of self-parody following his high profile domestic ‘knock out’ punch.
Sure, these transformations didn’t exactly take place overnight, with the process staggered and often unsensational, but even so, the Wayne Rooney of today is unrecognisable from that of 13 years ago.
Yet one question nonetheless remains in it all – are we more justified in celebrating the evolution of United’s record goalscorer or lamenting the fall out of England’s brightest talent since Gazza?
Speaking of England’s star-crossed catalogue of would be footballing talents, only cynics will argue Rooney hasn’t lived up to his billing, and he might’ve escaped the pigeonholing and pressure of a promising Englishman altogether.
As it turns out, the Republic of Ireland approached Rooney as a 16-year-old, hoping to secure his services in spite of ties with the England youth setup.
Fast forward ten years and, as pictures emerged of son Kai in Ireland’s 2012 away kit, the star’s affinity with his grandmother’s homeland became clear for all to see.
So without overlooking his ‘English and proud’ tattoo and past revelations of being ‘English through and through’, Wayne Rooney nonetheless belongs to a tradition of popular Englishmen with firm Irish roots and ties to North West Anglia, joining the repository alongside Lennon and McCartney, Morrissey, the Gallagher brothers and Paul Scholes.
Strikingly, there’s a certain poeticism in Rooney’s roundabout Catholic journey as well, with themes of betrayal and repentance inspiring a reawakening in the much-scrutinised public figure to the point where his 2008 wedding read more like a pilgrimage to the far reaches of devout Italy, albeit an occasion ultimately consecrated by Rooney’s local Croxteth priest.
Now approaching the 2017/18 season and a reunion in Everton blue, the latest from the Rooney camp has been met with controversy, not least among those implicated in his comments.
The former United captain spoke about how his teammates of recent years weren’t on par with those of his initial years at Old Trafford, implying a lack of resolve and mental toughness.
Whether true or not, Rooney’s words hint at some of the co-factors responsible in his eventual decline at the club. Remarkably, there nevertheless remains a chance he could return sooner than expected, this time as an ambassador.
While we’ll have to wait and see if this happens, simply having such an exalted job offer at hand speaks volumes of how far Wayne Rooney has come these past 13 years, whatever your take on his time at Manchester United.
As for his immediate future with Everton, it’s safe to say the wider footballing community would delight in seeing him replicate the form displayed thus far in pre-season, itself not without a hint of nostalgia.