The seven stages of Wayne Rooney: Prodigy to professional at Man United
This article first appeared on ESPN FC in May 2017.
"He is a very important player for us, if he stays next season I'd be very happy," said Jose Mourinho of Wayne Rooney after Manchester United's Europa League final win over Ajax.
But Rooney leaving United for boyhood club Everton now appears more likely than not. With his omission from Gareth Southgate's England squad all but finishing an 118-cap career, this is set to be a summer at the crossroads for the 31-year-old.
Should he depart United, he will leave with a glorious honour roll. Collecting a Europa League winners' medal gives him an almost complete set of major trophies at United: winners' medals from five Premier League titles, the Champions League and FIFA World Club Cup in 2008, three League Cups and an FA Cup, will decorate his Cheshire mansion's trophy room. Only the UEFA Super Cup, in which United lost 2-1 to Zenit St Petersburg in 2008, has evaded him.
From fresh-faced prodigy to senior professional, the last 15 years in the spotlight have been an often rocky ride, but Rooney will one day be recalled as a United and England great.
1. Teenage tearaway
Tales of a teenager strong and good enough to train with the first-team at Walter Smith's Everton had been on the grapevine for some time, and Rooney's debut as a 16-year-old for Smith's replacement David Moyes, in a 2-2 draw Tottenham in August 2002, saw him show off his talent by setting up Mark Pembridge for Everton's first goal.
Five days before his 17th birthday, on Oct. 19, 2002, Rooney became the then-youngest scorer in Premier League history by rattling in a last-minute winner against Arsenal, ending the defending champions' 30-game unbeaten run. Not even old enough to own a UK provisional driving licence, his stardom seemed assured.
Key moment: After that goal, Arsene Wenger described Rooney as "the biggest England talent I've seen since I arrived in England."
2. England dreams and Man United move
Having made his England debut in a 2-1 friendly defeat by Australia in February 2003, Rooney swiftly became indispensable for coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Swede never hid his glowing admiration for Rooney -- comparing him to a young Pele -- and the striker starred at Euro 2004, scoring four goals before breaking a foot in a quarterfinal loss to Portugal.
Rooney was the hottest football property on the planet, and Sir Alex Ferguson just had to have him at Manchester United. Newcastle made an audacious move for Rooney in August 2004, but Ferguson moved into top gear and a £25.6 million deal was done, after a game between United and Everton, on Aug. 31.
"[Everton chairman] Bill Kenwright was crying," Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography. "Through his tears, Bill said: 'I'll need to phone my mother. They're stealing our boy, they're stealing our boy,' he said down the line."
Key moment: Rooney's Euro 2004 devastation of Croatia, scoring two goals in a 4-2 win, is probably still the best post-millennium performance by an England player in a tournament finals.
3. A star name but a supporting act
Rooney announced himself as a United player with a debut hat trick in 6-2 Champions League thrashing of Fenerbahce in September 2004, and swiftly became United's leading man. Ferguson rebuilt his team, eventually ridding himself of previous mainstays Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
But there was another teenage talent at United: Cristiano Ronaldo. The pair were first acquainted in a match at Old Trafford on Boxing Day 2003 when Rooney, still with Everton, showed his fiery side and hacked down the Portuguese winger after becoming frustrated by Ronaldo's showboating.
Together at Old Trafford, the pair got on well -- even after Ronaldo had been caught winking at Portugal's bench after Rooney had got himself sent off in another quarterfinal loss for England, this time at the 2006 World Cup.
Ferguson realised that Ronaldo wanted to be the kingpin, while Rooney, less confident, was happier to serve. And United won three titles in succession from 2006 to 2009 and the Champions League.
Key moment: The March 2007 goal that Rooney scored against Bolton in a 4-1 win, after a move that took play from end to end, is the perfect demonstration of the symmetry that Rooney and Ronaldo enjoyed together.
4. Man United's talisman
Ferguson could not prevent Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid, after two years of flirtation, and cashed him in to the tune of £80m in July 2009. That placed Rooney back at the centre of his team as an undisputed fulcrum. It was a responsibility he seized.
Ronaldo's replacement was right-winger Antonio Valencia, far less flashy but someone who struck up a fine partnership with centre-forward Rooney, becoming his prime supply line in a 34-goal season that saw the striker crowned PFA Player of the Year.
United, though, fell short of a fourth successive Premier League title, as Rooney broke down with an ankle injury during a Champions League quarterfinal at Bayern Munich in March 2010. He was rushed back for the return leg, but could not last the game as United were knocked out.
Rooney's rise and fall at United may have hinged on that moment. He has never been the same force of nature since.
Key moment: United's reliance on Rooney is perhaps best shown by his match-winning impact on the 2010 League Cup final. Rested on the bench as Ferguson attempted to wrap his talisman in cotton wool, Rooney was called on with the score at 1-1 with Aston Villa and duly scored the winner.
5. Falling out with Fergie
Rooney, half-fit and frustrated, was a disaster at the 2010 World Cup as England crashed out in the quarterfinals. He returned to club duty but all was not well at Old Trafford. Having cashed in Ronaldo, Ferguson made some poor moves in the transfer market; Bebe, Gabriel Obertan, Mame Biram Diouf and Michael Owen were budget signings, made as Ferguson was constrained by the Glazer family who had bought the club in 2005.
Across Manchester, meanwhile, City were the rich kids on the block, and were looking for star quality. Rooney's head was turned, and in October 2010, he put in a transfer request, citing a lack of ambition from United as his reason.
"I met with David Gill [United's chief executive] last week and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad," Rooney's statement said. His was a concern that chimed with many United fans, but Ferguson convinced him to stay on. After a five-year contract was signed, the pair posed for a photo, with Ferguson grinning but Rooney looking rather less sure of himself.
At that point, Ferguson needed Rooney, who recovered his form to inspire a title in 2010-11 -- including a brilliant overhead-kick winner in the derby against Manchester City -- but their relationship would never be as warm as it once was.
Key moment: Ferguson, speaking in October 2010: "We've done nothing but help him since he's been at this club. We cannot quite understand why he would want to leave."
6. A falling star
When Ferguson retired in May 2013 and handed the reins to David Moyes, he did so after revealing that Rooney had again tried to leave Old Trafford. Rooney had played poorly in the manager's final season, and been very much second fiddle to top goal scorer Robin van Persie.
Freshly returned to Chelsea, Jose Mourinho was interested in buying Rooney. "The person that started the story has to finish the story," he said after a 0-0 August 2013 meeting between the clubs. But Rooney would stay on at United and pen a new, record-breaking deal in February 2014. Moyes and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward felt they could not allow him to leave at such a point of vulnerability, but both would pay handsomely for their timidity.
Yet Rooney's six-year deal, on reported wages of £300,000-a-week, proved a millstone. There was a brief flicker of improvement under Moyes, but the returns diminished year-on-year. Moyes lasted just 10 months at Old Trafford, with Rooney powerless to prevent United's rapid decline.
Key moment: "We always felt Wayne wanted to stay," said Moyes as that new deal was signed. "He's a great player and hopefully we can keep him at a really high level."
7. Retreating to the sideline
Moyes' replacement, Louis van Gaal, made Rooney club captain in the summer of 2014 and handed great responsibility to the senior professional. Rooney gave his own team talks, to which Van Gaal was not even invited, but between them they could not revive United.
Van Gaal was sacked despite winning the FA Cup in May 2016, where his captain had made a crucial contribution in beating Crystal Palace 2-1. And Rooney, who had long desired to close out his career as a midfielder, dropped back from the forward line. There, he proved himself no playmaker in the style of Paul Scholes, or tempo-dictating engine in the style of Roy Keane, and struggled in playing that position for England at Euro 2016.
When Mourinho replaced Van Gaal in the summer of 2016, he at first persisted with Rooney, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic soon took over and it wasn't long before Marcus Rashford usurped him too.
Mourinho admitted he was reluctant to play Rooney as a midfielder. "For me he will be a [number] 9, a 10, or a 9-and-a-half, but not a 6 or even an 8," he said in July and as the season rolled on, Rooney was a bit-part player, even during United's injury crises
During the 2016-17 season, he became all-time leading scorer for both United and England, with strikes against Stoke City and Slovenia respectively, but ended the campaign as a bystander as United claimed the EFL Cup and Europa League. At Wembley, he was an unused sub; in Stockholm, he played only the closing moments. And the final blow to his already faded confidence came when he was dropped by England for June games against Scotland and France.
Key moment: An injury-time free-kick goal, the equaliser in a 1-1 at Stoke on Jan. 21, took him beyond Sir Bobby Charlton as United's leading scorer, reaching 250.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.