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Sep 10, 2010

Rooney hits the headlines

On Saturday, Wayne Rooney returns to Merseyside to face his boyhood club Everton, with the maelstrom of a personal crisis overshadowing his contribution on the pitch. Sympathy is likely to be in short supply from a Toffees support that once idolised Rooney, who in 2002 burst into the national football consciousness with a goal of brilliant audacity against Arsenal. This is the story of the rise to prominence of one of England's finest talents, and most notorious tabloid darlings, of modern times.

"What a brilliant goal! Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!"

These were the immortal, and wonderfully prescient, words uttered by commentator Clive Tyldesley on October 19, 2002, as a 16-year-old product of the Everton academy brought Arsenal's 30-game unbeaten run to an end with a wonderful last-minute goal. It was a moment that ensured Rooney became a household name - a magnet for the English press both thanks to his on-field endeavours and, later, his off-field exploits.

But before the scandal, the moralising and the heartbreak came the promise, the buzz of anticipation and the breathtaking ability. It felt like that first goal could be a watershed for a new generation. An equivalent to Alan Shearer's debut hat-trick for Southampton against Arsenal in 1988, or George Best's first flashes of genius.

Rooney's ascent was a thrilling development for English football, but to those in the know at Goodison, it was no surprise. He had been destined for greatness in Everton blue for years.

The young Rooney, a native of Croxteth, was offered a trial at Liverpool but never arrived having shown little inclination to spurn Everton - the club he supported. It would always be the Toffees for Rooney, who idolised the imposing Scottish striker Duncan Ferguson, and signed for the club aged eight.

Toffees scout Bob Pendleton was the man who discovered Rooney performing on Liverpool's Long Lane fields. He told The Independent in 2006: "I vividly remember the first day I saw young Wayne... I noticed this little striker trying something different every time he touched the ball. Before [Rooney and his parents] arrived on the Thursday night I went to see Ray Hall, the youth academy director at Everton, and asked him to sign this eight-year-old on the spot. Ray came in but deliberately left his door open. He was up to something. The next thing Joe Royle, the manager and one of big Wayne's boyhood heroes, walked past and Ray invited him in. Joe was great, really friendly. Then we signed Wayne Rooney."

Though boxing initially competed for his time, Rooney's rise through the Everton ranks was inexorable. Even when representing the Under-9 team he was turning heads, impressing coaches from Manchester United. Between the ages of 10 and 11, he smashed the Liverpool Schoolboys goalscoring record; at the age of 14, he was in Everton's Under-19 side; at 15, he was representing England at Under-17 level. This was a player of real precocity.

A run to the FA Youth Cup final in the 2001-02 season only confirmed his promise, and Rooney endeared himself further to the growing clutch of Everton fans aware of his potential when infamously tearing off his shirt to reveal a vest reading "Once a Blue, Always a Blue" - words that would later be used as a stick with which to beat him for years.

Manager David Moyes plucked Rooney from the Bellefield youth ranks at the start of the following season and the forward made his senior debut at the age of 16 when facing Tottenham in a Premier League game on August 17. Two months and two League Cup goals against Wrexham later, Rooney was ready to confirm his immense potential had indeed translated into ability.

Summoned from the bench after 80 minutes against an Arsenal side that were reigning champions and unbeaten in 30 league games, Rooney, not for the last time, dealt a damaging blow to Arsene Wenger's Gunners.

With 90 minutes on the clock, Rooney, still just 16 years and 360 days old, picked a hopeful lump forward from Thomas Gravesen out of the air and away from Lauren, spun and advanced on goal. With Sol Campbell backing off, Rooney let fly with a curling effort from 25 yards that flew over the ponytailed David Seaman and in off the underside of the bar. It was a five-second burst of brilliance that was seared on the retinas of the watching public - and installed Rooney as the Premier League's youngest ever goalscorer, surpassing another son of Merseyside in Michael Owen.

Wenger, himself no stranger to excellent young prospects, remarked in his post-match press conference: "He's supposed to be 16. Owen's a complete striker but I didn't see him play at 16. At that age, Rooney is already a complete footballer. The guy can play. He's the best English Under-20 I've seen since I came here [in 1996]. He can play people in, he's clever and a natural, built like a Gascoigne with his low centre of gravity. And he can dribble - I like strikers who can dribble."

The Sunday Express marked Rooney's goal with the headline 'Tricky Rooney', while the Daily Star followed up on Monday with 'Wayne of Terror' as the press pored over his life story, debating whether he would be quickly prised away from Goodison. Thankfully, though, the tabloids were yet to apply the infuriating tag of 'Roo', which has become all too commonplace in recent years, even if the Fourth Estate had already latched onto a new star.

As the papers were quick to trumpet, at this juncture in his career, Rooney was still on apprentice wages of £80 per week, though four days after his heroics against Arsenal he would become a full-time professional, his ascent to football seniority on the pitch pre-empting legal confirmation.

Moyes, who would later issue legal proceedings of his own in response to Rooney's autobiography of 2006, said of the new talent he had on his hands: "When I came here, I wanted to lay foundations at the club which wouldn't be knocked away and avoid what's happened in the past. Wayne's an Evertonian through and through and will probably be out with his pals this evening showing them how he scored the winner. There are special players. He can become one of them."

Everton would not be able to retain Rooney, the striker joining Manchester United following a brilliant performance at Euro 2004, but Moyes was right about Rooney's potential. That goal against Arsenal confirmed the birth of a football talent and, in a relentless mass media culture, a new star for the press to scrutinise. A phenomenon was born.

What happened next?: What didn't? Rooney made his England debut in 2003 and angered Everton fans when joining Manchester United for £27 million in 2004, scoring a hat-trick on his debut against Fenerbahce. He struggled to rebuild bridges with his boyhood club, particularly following claims made in his autobiography about Moyes, and kissed the United badge when returning to Goodison in 2008. Though he has won league titles, individual accolades and the Champions League, Rooney attracted criticism following some poor performances at the 2010 World Cup and has seen unsavoury allegations about his private life resurface of late.

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