Wayne Rooney's Everton return a mix of sentiment and sense
Is it sentiment or common sense? Wayne Rooney's return to Everton has been met with cheers and cynicism in equal measure. The 31-year-old was clearly surplus to requirements at Manchester United, and at face value, a return to Goodison Park is a risky move.
Everton place great emphasis on the emotional pull of the club. For almost three decades they have been overshadowed in terms of success and worldwide awareness by Liverpool, their biggest rivals and neighbours. To counter this, they have created a narrative where local roots have generated an almost spiritual appeal.
Everton are the self-styled "People's Club." Across Merseyside, car bumper stickers promote this image. The words "You're in my heart, you're in my soul" are juxtaposed with the Everton badge. The phrase "Born, not manufactured" adorns merchandise. "We are chosen, we do not choose," the slogans say.
Rooney has chosen to come back. It adds to the mythology that once touched by Everton, the magnetism of Goodison is irresistible. There is plenty of evidence to prove this theory. Duncan Ferguson is one of the prime examples. The Scot helped bring the FA Cup to Goodison in 1995, the last time the club won a trophy. The striker was sold to Newcastle United in 1998 after four seasons on Merseyside. In his first spell for the Blues, Ferguson was popular with the crowd. His return in 2000 made him an Everton legend.
Ferguson's career was blighted by injury. He was not a prolific striker. His best goal tally in a season while at the club was 11 in the league -- and that was in his first spell. He was loved by the supporters for his aggressive style of play, his commitment to the club and his rumbustious off-the-pitch lifestyle. His return reinforced this adoration even if his performances never reached the heights of his first spell. The perception was the striker wanted to be at Goodison. He had come home.
Ferguson is now on the coaching staff and was prominent in the photo shoot with Rooney in the aftermath of the England forward's transfer. The symbolism of those photographs is important.
David Unsworth, who has been involved in developing Everton's production line of exciting young players as under-23s coach, is another former player who had two stints at the club. After six seasons, the centre-back left for West Ham United in 1998. The hiatus lasted a year. Unsworth was soon back on Merseyside and had another half-dozen campaigns in blue. After developing a reputation as a coach at Preston North End and Sheffield United, the 43-year-old returned for a third time to take a backroom job.
Ferguson and Unsworth battled through some bleak years for Everton, when there was little money to spend in the transfer market and on wages. The relative penury was a factor in bringing former players back -- either on loan or for significantly less money than they were sold -- and it did not always work so well.
Francis Jeffers, a goal-scoring prodigy for the Blues, was brought back on loan from Arsenal in 2004 after an expensive transfer but had lost his eye for goal. More recently, Steven Pienaar returned five years ago after a season with Tottenham Hotspur but never regained the sparkle of his first four campaigns on Merseyside. Rooney's return comes at a time when there is more cash and ambition at the club.
Emotional homecomings can go badly wrong. Howard Kendall was one of the greatest figures in Everton history and had four different spells at Goodison but his last two stints clouded his legacy. As a player, Kendall was part of the midfield that drove Everton to the title in 1970. He returned as manager 11 years later and transformed the club from relegation battlers to one of Europe's best. In the next six years his team won the league twice, the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the FA Cup. The ban on English clubs playing in continental competition after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 halted Everton's upward trajectory.
Kendall left to coach Athletic Bilbao in Spain two years later but he could not get Everton out of his system. In 1990, when Goodison came calling again, Kendall was back in England and making a promising start at Manchester City. He headed to Merseyside, saying "City was just an affair. Everton is a marriage." It turned into two messy divorces.
The team were mired in the bottom half of the table. Kendall kept the club in the top flight but his three-year second spell as manager was an uphill struggle. He returned in 1997 for a third tenure in charge but lasted just a season, only avoiding relegation on the final day of the campaign. Kendall died two years ago and remains an Everton icon, but few remember his last two terms in charge with any affection.
Things will be simpler for Rooney. Superficially, his latest career move looks similar to Robbie Fowler's return to Liverpool in 2006. Both were homegrown teenage sensations who left too early in the eyes of many fans. Fowler's impact during that season and a half at Anfield was more sentimental than sensational, but his return was almost universally applauded by the Kop. Rooney could make a more long-lasting contribution to the new Everton era.
Perhaps a closer Liverpool comparison than Fowler would be Steven Gerrard. Rooney and Gerrard have something in common that few English players can claim: global recognition.
Kenny Dalglish is another Merseyside legend who can attest to the difficulties of returning to a club. Dalglish's second period as Liverpool manager ended five years ago and was considered a failure by many, despite winning the League Cup. Dalglish, one of the greatest figures in Anfield history, understood that Gerrard could perform a wider role at the club than merely playing.
When Liverpool were looking to recruit young players, their talismanic midfielder was encouraged to make contact with the transfer targets. Dalglish's rationale was simple. Despite the Scot's stellar career as a player, teenagers knew little about him. He was just another manager. They all knew Gerrard and had seen the midfielder's heroics on TV. "When he said to kids 'come to Anfield and play with me,' it had enormous power," Dalglish said.
Rooney, with his prodigious medal collection and 119 England caps, has similar power. At this stage, his name is more recognisable than Everton's to fans across the globe. Five Premier League titles, Champions League and Europa League wins, an FA Cup final victory and three League Cup successes have earned him that fame. His very presence at Goodison will increase worldwide awareness about the club and potentially provide an already effective recruitment process with an extra weapon.
In the twilight of his career, Rooney will not have the explosive impact that he had as a 16-year-old breaking through, but his signing ticks a number of boxes.
On Merseyside, it is the story of a prodigal son who, despite all the badge-kissing at United, has finally endorsed the "Once a blue always a blue" slogan he scrawled on a T-shirt and displayed for the cameras after scoring in the FA Youth Cup final in 2002. On a wider scale, it will bring Everton to the attention of people who have considered them to be one of the less interesting Premier League clubs.
Any return is fraught with danger, as Kendall's experience showed, but Rooney is in a different position. He left too early in his career to be considered an Everton great. He has little legacy to spoil except for his credentials as a supporter. His stands in Old Trafford's pantheon rather than Goodison's.
This is a late, last chance for Rooney to join the list of Everton legends. Whether he achieves this or not, sentiment and sense dovetail in this signing.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.