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Aug 31, 2004

Once a blue, now a Devil...

The journey from Liverpool to Manchester is a short one, but Wayne Rooney's rapid transformation from hero to pariah in his home city has been equally quick.

But having alienated Everton, Rooney has engineered his exit, choosing Manchester United ahead of Newcastle in a £27 million move.

But whereas Michael Owen left Liverpool on amicable terms, Rooney made his position at Everton untenable. Phrases like 'once a blue, always a blue,' have been thrown back at an 18-year-old with a shorter first-team career at Goodison Park than Alex Nyarko, Niclas Alexandersson or Scott Gemmill. The hurt caused by his defection is surely linked to Sir Alex Ferguson's verdict: 'We have got the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years.'

Everton surely hoped that Rooney's departure would at least be eased by the superfluous millions which are a feature of so many Chelsea transfers.

But the ever unpredictable Jose Mourinho decided against Rooney and Everton cannot benefit from that false economy. The bidding would not have started at £20 million if Chelsea had been involved.

Manchester United are the beneficiaries, though, as the third most expensive signing by a British club and the world's costliest teenager, Rooney has hardly come cheap. A lesser budget for transfers next summer is reportedly the first consequence of his signing.

But Manchester United are investing more than just £27 million in Rooney. In a decade of supremacy, their buying power and expansive style of play were unrivalled in English football.

Accustomed to dominance, United have now been upstaged by Chelsea's endless supply of roubles and Arsenal's majestic demolition of opponents. Hence Roy Keane's warning that Liverpool's present may be United's future, straining for a revival of a glorious past.

So Rooney arrives, charged with restoring Manchester United to the heart of English football. For supporters underwhelmed by buys like Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion, he is the big name they have craved for.

For a PLC whose two biggest financial gambles, Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron, have not justified their price tags, he represents a third statement of intent for both the Premiership and the Champions League.

From hero to pariah: Everton fans make their feelings known.
From hero to pariah: Everton fans make their feelings known.

For the United manager, it suggests Fergie's Fledglings finally have worthy successors among a younger generation.

Of the three most talented teenagers in British football, two now play at Old Trafford and Tim Howard, Alan Smith, John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher could be the supporting cast to Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It also presents the chance to rewrite history. Ferguson has long maintained that if a young Paul Gascoigne had chosen Manchester United ahead of Tottenham, his career would have taken a very different path. Rooney, who appears to share Gascoigne's gift for self-destruction, should be grateful.

And while the name of Eric Cantona has been invoked as another comparison for Rooney, he has, a stellar Euro 2004 aside, much to prove. Of the three R's (Rooney, Ronaldo and Jose Antonio Reyes), his club career has been the least distinguished. Bookings outnumbered goals and he was more an occasional matchwinner than an essential element of the Everton side.

Whereas Ronaldo and Reyes enchant, Rooney bulldozes; it is part of his appeal to the John Bull element of the England support. But at Old Trafford, he needs to display the guile to unlock defences, especially if played just behind Ruud van Nistelrooy. His signing seems certain to herald Paul Scholes' return to the centre of midfield and an end to the days of two defensive midfielders in the United side.

Of the three R's (Rooney, Ronaldo and Reyes), his club career has been the least distinguished.

And what of the losers? Everton deserve more sympathy than Newcastle. It is hard to see what more David Moyes could have done to accommodate Rooney, offering to give him the captaincy and break the club's wage structure.

Both the manner and timing of his departure reflect badly on the increasingly graceless Rooney. As the transfer window closes, Moyes has no time to pursue reported targets like James Beattie and Andy van der Meyde or to spend his sudden windfall. The influential Thomas Gravesen, in the final year of his contract, has less incentive to stay. And yet Everton have made an encouraging start to the season, their unity very apparent in their draw against Manchester United.

Newcastle's bid, meanwhile, appears a product of the confused thinking which pervades the club now, based on a desperation to reaffirm their status among the Premiership elite. Craig Bellamy is not normally seen as the voice of reason, but the Wales international made it clear he thinks Newcastle's needs lie elsewhere.

Paul Gascoigne: Trains during his ill-fated spell with Gansu Tianma
Paul Gascoigne: Trains during his ill-fated spell with Gansu Tianma

Bellamy's statement that Rooney's arrival would lead him to rethink his future have been described as undermining Sir Bobby Robson. As chairman Freddy Shepherd made the offer, however, Bellamy's criticism was aimed at the board. Unsettling Newcastle's most effective performer this season while failing to replace arguably their most important player, Jonathan Woodgate, contributed to Newcastle's malaise. Robson carried the can for the discontent.

So there is only one footballing knight left in management. After failing to win two of the last three titles and spending £40 million this summer, Ferguson's fortunes will be linked to those of his newest signing.

Rooney, in turn, is required to lift a club already seven points off the pace as well as justifying his fee.

Staying at Everton, if only for another year, would have been the easier option but Manchester United have a fine tradition of players loved and hated in equal measures. Rooney joins that list as he comes off Everton's transfer list.

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