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Sep 25, 2008

On that day: Rooney's teenage riot

Sunday September 28 will mark the anniversary of Wayne Rooney's arrival as a Manchester United player. In 2004, as now, United had been involved in a summer-long pursuit of another Premier League club's biggest star. And, as with the Dimitar Berbatov saga, United got their man. They were made to wait nearly a month to see if all that glittered was truly gold. Wayne Rooney the footballer had last been seen leaving the field in Lisbon, with not only his foot broken. His departure had signalled the end of England's hopes of winning the Euro 2004 title he had seemed destined to lead them to. His four goals in Portugal had made him the hottest property in world football, with England coach Sven Goran Eriksson comparing his impact to that of Pele at the World Cup of 1958, which the Swede had watched as a boy in his homeland.

The hype could not have been more heightened. Two years after abandoning his school tie, Rooney was now tabloid gold, his relationship with childhood sweetheart Colleen McLoughlin splayed across the gossip pages and celeb mags, not least when his dalliances at a Liverpool massage parlour were exposed in the red-tops. Good or bad, the boy wonder was now a media sensation.

A true blue Evertonian, with the club's crest tattooed on his teenaged bicep, Rooney was seen by fans as the man to lead the Toffees back to the top table of English football. Yet his relationship with boss David Moyes had never been great. Moyes often chose to keep his young tyro on the bench when Rooney was champing at the bit to play. Bad blood would exist between the pair long after Rooney had left Goodison; it would result in a successful libel writ for Moyes against remarks made in Rooney's autobiography, published at the ripe old age of 21.

As so often in recent years, Everton were unable to hold on to a prized asset. Rooney joined the likes of Gary Lineker, Francis Jeffers and Duncan Ferguson in leaving Goodison for a richer club. The days when Everton had been able to sign English football's biggest talents, like they had with Alan Ball, Lineker and Tony Cottee, were long gone after the glory days of the 1980s had faded in financial failing.

Manchester United had always been the likely destination and it had seemed Everton would hold on to Rooney for an extra season. But United's hand was forced by a bid from Newcastle, where Sir Bobby Robson seemed the ideal person to guide the young man into maturity.

United eventually paid a fee that could - and would - eventually rise up to £27m. Another knight, Sir Alex Ferguson had his man. A dream partnership with free-scoring Ruud Van Nistelrooy awaited as United looked to wrest control of the Premier League away from Arsenal, who had strolled away with the title unbeaten in 2003/4 and were still unbeaten by the time Rooney came to make his debut. The foot injury that had ended Euro 2004 took time to heal. From the night of that injury on June 24, the football world had to wait 96 days to see its brightest star shine again. Rooney had been expected to make his tentative steps in a United shirt against Middlesbrough on October 3. Instead, five days ahead of schedule, Ferguson chose to blood his new man in United's Champions League group stage opener with Turkish champions Fenerbahce.

Fenerbahce held a special place in United's story; in 1996 they had broken United's 40-year unbeaten European home record. This was a revenge mission of sorts for United and they would have to achieve it without Roy Keane. In truth, despite the absence of the man then still regarded as the club's heartbeat, all eyes were on one man.

So far in his career, Rooney had made the big occasions his own. This was to be no exception. Ryan Giggs, himself once the bright young star of Old Trafford, opened the scoring with a header on seven minutes. Ten minutes later the stage was Rooney's.

His first goal came via Van Nistelrooy. The poacher supreme served the ball into space and Rooney calmly clipped, with his left foot, a shot of unerring power. Goalkeeper Rustu was soundly beaten and Rooney's sliding celebration matched the rapture in the stands.

Rooney's next was self-created. A trademark drift to the left saw him receive the ball, cut past Umit Ozat without breaking stride before he smashed the ball into the top corner, this time with his right. Having narrowly missed out on a hat-trick when he failed to connect with a Gary Neville cross, Rooney nearly entered the half-time dressing room with the match ball. He would have to make do with a chorus of his name ringing out from every corner of Old Trafford.

He completed the job just seven minutes after the restart. A foul on Van Nistelrooy gave United a free-kick on the edge of the Turkish box. Only one man could take it. His finish was no David Beckham-style caress. It was pure power. Rustu was again nowhere near.

After a rally by Fenerbahce that saw them take the score back to 4-2, it was Rooney who steadied United's ship with a slide-rule pass to Van Nistelrooy, who finished with his usual accuracy. United ran out 6-2 winners, a goal from David Bellion completing the night. The presence in the starting line-up of Bellion, along with other United soon-to-be-flops like Eric Djemba Djemba and Kleberson, only confirms the galvanising effect that Rooney had on his new team. Meanwhile, an unused sub was one Cristiano Ronaldo. As a start it could not get any better than that. Ferguson said after the match: "It is something you dream of as a manager for a player to play in this way and to score in this way in his first game. If he does that, it makes you very happy and you're a very lucky manager. Rooney is still very young and maybe he will become the player of the century."

It was a lot to live up to. Rooney's lack of fitness soon showed and though he played a leading - and Machiavellian - role in the downing of Arsenal, he struggled to make much else of an early impact. By January, he was fully in his stride but the lack of depth in United's squad cost Rooney honours in his first season as the Red Devils faded badly in the league and lost in the FA Cup final. The dream team of Rooney and Van Nistelrooy would score goals aplenty in their two seasons together but never deliver the cups that they craved.

At 18, Rooney truly had the world at his feet. And he may still do, having, at just 22, gathered almost every honour in the game. Yet the school of thought that Rooney can never live up to those explosive early days remain persuasive theories. That may well be understandable on the evidence of his maiden United appearance.

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