When Wayne Rooney trudged off the pitch in Warsaw on Wednesday night, downcast after another largely listless display in an England shirt, it was an all too familiar sight. His career has been pockmarked by extreme highs and depressing lows and here he was again, five days after captaining his country against San Marino, departing the action early, having had the worst passing accuracy of any visiting player, to be replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It is a familiar pattern for a player who turns 27 next Wednesday. Only in October last year he was sent off in Montenegro, pictured right, for foolishly kicking out at an opponent and earning the ban that ensured his absence from England's first two fixtures at the European Championship.
Although he did find the net against the host country in England's final group game in Ukraine, it was his first goal in a major tournament for eight years. After his explosive four-goal impact at Euro 2004, there was the red card for a reckless challenge on Ricardo Carvalho at the 2006 World Cup and the less said about his contribution – and angry rant into a TV camera – in South Africa the better.
There is a danger of asking the George Best question – where did it all go wrong, Wayne? – of a footballer who has won four Premier League titles and one Champions League with Manchester United, yet it is hard not to wonder, whether we got what we expected from the kid from Croxteth. When ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley uttered his memorable phrase "Remember the name..." as a 16-year-old bullock in a blue shirt unleashed a dipping, last-minute strike past England goalkeeper David Seaman on 19 October 2002, it seemed anything was possible. Rooney's first league strike had ended the 30-match unbeaten run of champions Arsenal, bringing a 2-1 victory for his boyhood team Everton and lifting the roof off Goodison Park.
As introductions go, Seaman himself likens its impact to Michael Owen's famed World Cup strike against Argentina. "It wasn't a lucky or instinctive strike, he actually gave me the eyes," he told i. "He looked like he was going to put it to my top left corner, gave me the eyes a bit and got a great connection on it and it crashed in off the bar."
His first Everton goals, a double against Wrexham in the League Cup made him the club's then youngest scorer. The Premier League record he held for a short while followed with his Arsenal thunderbolt and Rooney's second league goal two weeks later was almost as memorable: a slaloming run through the Leeds defence and low finish which brought Everton's first league win at Elland Road since 1951. It was almost inevitable that by the following September he had become his country's youngest scorer after netting in a 2-1 victory in Macedonia.
For those who had followed Rooney's development, none of this seemed a surprise at all. Ray Hall, Everton's former academy director, suspected that the young Rooney had greatness in his feet just months after signing him as a nine-year-old. "When did I realise we'd got something special? He played in an eight-a-side game six months later against Manchester United and performed a bicycle-kick like the one against Manchester City that won goal of the season. There was silence, then a round of applause from parents and spectators. I've never heard that in a youngsters' game but everybody who was there applauded."
David Weir, a former Everton team-mate now working with the Goodison reserves, recalls how Rooney was "in awe of Duncan Ferguson" and, like his boyhood hero, "had a little nasty streak which showed itself occasionally, which is always a good thing for a footballer". Yet, contrary to some people's preconceptions of Rooney, he was "very respectful" as well.
More than anything, it was his love of the game that shone through. "He was always first out and last in, he'd always be practising his shooting and free-kicks, and you'd see him in goal as well. He looked like a kid who liked football – a lot of the younger lads now like being a footballer whereas he genuinely likes football."
Rooney has known his share of controversies, on and off the field, but this revelation recalled how much has changed since he picked a ball out of the air, gave the England goalkeeper the eyes and sent it flashing into the Park End net. "I said, 'He's going to hit this'. It was the way he turned and his body went over the ball. As he turned, the old shoulder went down and wooph," recalls Bob Pendleton, the man who had spotted Rooney.
Then, a world of possibilities was just opening up. "The thing is about Wayne, he showed no fear at all," remembers Lee Carsley, another old team-mate.
It was like seeing a superhero test out his exciting new powers and it continued for a time in an England shirt, too – bang in four goals as an 18-year-old at a European Championship? Easy.
Sadly, the problem with getting older, as Rooney has since discovered and Warsaw showed us once more, is you find out you are only human.
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