Wayne Rooney's Everton move about a star looking to prove his critics wrong
Is Wayne Rooney like an old boxer, deluding himself that he still has one more great fight left in him? That is one of the central questions surrounding his move from Manchester United back to his beloved Everton after 13 mostly distinguished years at Old Trafford.
As a big fight fan himself, Rooney will appreciate the boxing analogy only too well. He has even hinted that he understands why some observers feel he is "all washed up" or "damaged goods," as they say in the hardest game. He will know too that even ring greats such as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali discovered that time was the one opponent they could not beat. Louis ended up being spread-eagled through the bottom rope, sent there by Rocky Marciano, while Ali took a fearful battering from Larry Holmes.
So is Rooney fooling himself that he can rediscover the dynamism and goals that made him such a threat for so long in the Premier League?
Certainly, the old verve was missing in his rare appearances for United last season, when he lost his place and seemingly the confidence of manager Jose Mourinho. That inevitably led to Rooney being left out by the England national team as well. He became a captain in exile. Left on the bench or in the treatment room, a man who revelled in his role as United's main man became an almost forgotten figure.
There can be no doubt that Rooney had to get away from United and go somewhere where he would be loved again. For several months, ever since Everton manager Ronald Koeman said he'd be interested, the player has set his heart on going home to Goodison. Why, he has even revealed that he sleeps in Everton pajamas and that his son Kai was "as happy as I've ever seen him" after his dad's transfer.
At this week's news conference announcing his signing, Rooney looked in great shape and sounded like a little boy just wanting to be let loose in the Premier League playground again.
My TV colleagues Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves, both of whom played with and liked Rooney (aka "Wazza") enormously at United, will tell you that he is in love with the game, sometimes calling Michael just to tell him of a great goal he scored in training. Don't tell Rooney's agent, but you get the impression he would play for free. So it's no surprise that he is taking a substantial wage cut to move to the Toffees.
This is not about money for Rooney; it's about a top player wanting to stuff the words of his critics right back down their throats. He is pumped up to make a point and even regain his England place in time for the World Cup. But first he has to get into what looks an increasingly strong Everton team, albeit robbed of the goal threat of Romelu Lukaku.
Koeman, not the type to make a signing like this for sentimental reasons, has told Rooney he will be used in a role where he can use his instincts as a natural finisher. That could see him used mainly as a central striker in a front three.
Clearly, Rooney no longer has the pace and power of a Lukaku to run in behind defences, so his might be a false No. 9-type role, with Rooney both prompting and scoring while runners are encouraged to play off and beyond him. But Koeman also believes he can use Rooney's craft and nous to good effect in any of the three forward positions, though competition for the No. 10 role might be stiff with Davy Klaassen arriving from Ajax and (if he signs) Gylfi Sigurdsson from Swansea. Of course, the unsettled Ross Barkley is still an Everton player, but you wonder for how much longer.
In any event, Rooney is quite sure he will have a significant role to play for the club where it all started for him with that wonderful goal against Arsenal when he was just 16 years of age.
Sport and sentiment are often strangers, and the depressing possibility is that Rooney is indeed a busted flush. We will soon know, but he is only 31. He still has that great football brain and is back in tip-top shape, bursting with motivation. Rooney may yet defy that old boxing mantra: "They never come back."
It would be one of the season's great stories if he can roll back the years.
Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.