August 17, 2002: Wayne Rooney makes Everton debut in draw vs. Tottenham
Wayne Rooney made his senior debut at the age of 16 for Everton when facing Tottenham in a Premier League game on Aug. 17, 2002. Then, a phenomenon was born.
A version of this article appeared on ESPN FC in September 2010.
Rooney's ascent was a thrilling development for English football, but to those in the know at Goodison, it was no surprise. He had been destined for greatness in Everton blue for years.
The young Rooney, a native of Croxteth, was offered a trial at Liverpool but never arrived having shown little inclination to spurn Everton -- the club he supported. It would always be the Toffees for Rooney, who idolised the imposing Scottish striker Duncan Ferguson, and signed for the club aged eight.
Toffees scout Bob Pendleton was the man who discovered Rooney performing on Liverpool's Long Lane fields. He told The Independent in 2006: "I vividly remember the first day I saw young Wayn e... I noticed this little striker trying something different every time he touched the ball. Before [Rooney and his parents] arrived on the Thursday night I went to see Ray Hall, the youth academy director at Everton, and asked him to sign this eight-year-old on the spot.
"Ray came in but deliberately left his door open. He was up to something. The next thing Joe Royle, the manager and one of big Wayne's boyhood heroes, walked past and Ray invited him in. Joe was great, really friendly. Then we signed Wayne Rooney."
Though boxing initially competed for his time, Rooney's rise through the Everton ranks was inexorable. Even when representing the Under-9 team he was turning heads, impressing coaches from Manchester United. Between the ages of 10 and 11, he smashed the Liverpool Schoolboys goalscoring record; at the age of 14, he was in Everton's U19 side; at 15, he was representing England at U17 level. This was a player of real precocity.
Even England legend Paul Gascoigne was impressed. "I think it was Colin Harvey [in charge] at the time and he said to watch this young kid, he's 14 and playing for the Under 19s," he told Soccer AM in 2015. "I thought I'd stay and watch for a little bit and he came on when they were getting beat 1-0 with 20 minutes to go. He banged in two goals. I think you can watch them on TV -- they're incredible. What a player. I thought: 'He's going to be good'."
A run to the FA Youth Cup final in the 2001-02 season only confirmed his promise -- he scored in every round as they lost 4-2 on aggregate in the final -- and Rooney endeared himself further to the growing clutch of Everton fans aware of his potential when infamously tearing off his shirt to reveal a vest reading "Once a Blue, Always a Blue" -- words that would later be used as a stick with which to beat him for years.
He was an unused substitute in Everton's 1-0 away win over Southampton on April 20, 2002 but manager David Moyes plucked Rooney from the Bellefield youth ranks at the start of the following season and the forward made his senior debut at 16 when facing Tottenham in a Premier League game on Aug. 17: a 2-2 draw.
Rooney became the second youngest first-team player in Everton history behind Joe Royle as he lasted 66 minutes before being taken off and, according to the player's 2012 book "My decade in the Premier League", Spurs fans shouted "Who are ya?" whenever he touched the ball.
The youngster was not overawed by the occasion, however, as the BBC report shows: "The opening exchanges were predictably cautious, but Rooney demonstrated he was no respecter of reputations by clattering Teddy Sheringham at a corner."
And Rooney laid on the first goal for Mark Pembridge before Matthew Etherington and Les Ferdinand (with the help of an error from Richard Wright) turned the game on its head, only for Tomasz Radzinski to rescue a point with a late equaliser.
Two months and two League Cup goals against Wrexham later, Rooney was ready to confirm his immense potential had indeed translated into ability. That moment would come against Arsenal.
What happened next?: What didn't? On Oct. 19, Rooney brought Arsenal's 30-game unbeaten run to an end with a wonderful last-minute goal. It was a moment that ensured the striker became a household name -- a magnet for the English press both thanks to his on-field endeavours and, later, his off-field exploits.
Rooney made his England debut in 2003 and angered Everton fans when joining Manchester United for £27 million in 2004, scoring a hat trick on his debut against Fenerbahce. He struggled to rebuild bridges with his boyhood club, particularly following claims made in his autobiography about Moyes, and kissed the United badge when returning to Goodison in 2008. But having become the all-time record goalscorer for England and United he returned to Everton in 2017, to score on his second debut.