Wayne Rooney: The last of the backstreet heroes

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The Independent Online

It cannot be said that a star was born in the Portuguese town of Coimbra this week when Wayne Rooney erupted with two goals against Switzerland that gave life to England's campaign in the European football championship finals. Rooney, a hulking, precociously brilliant man-child, had been blazing intermittently in the football heavens for the best part of two years. The youngest scorer in the history of his famous club Everton, now the youngest in the finals of the championship, which every four years assembles the cream of the European game, Rooney has been long marked for a spectacular career. What happened in Coimbra simply defined the scale of expectations. They are vast: even in terms of comparison with such luminaries as David Beckham and the sadly imploded Paul Gascoigne, they are surging off the graph.

It cannot be said that a star was born in the Portuguese town of Coimbra this week when Wayne Rooney erupted with two goals against Switzerland that gave life to England's campaign in the European football championship finals. Rooney, a hulking, precociously brilliant man-child, had been blazing intermittently in the football heavens for the best part of two years. The youngest scorer in the history of his famous club Everton, now the youngest in the finals of the championship, which every four years assembles the cream of the European game, Rooney has been long marked for a spectacular career. What happened in Coimbra simply defined the scale of expectations. They are vast: even in terms of comparison with such luminaries as David Beckham and the sadly imploded Paul Gascoigne, they are surging off the graph.

Yesterday, as the sun came up bringing white heat into the life of the 18-year-old Liverpudlian, the son of an unemployed labourer who has brothers who like to fight as much as play football, a nationwide vox pop asked if the hero of Coimbra will be the greatest English goalscorer of all time, better than a litany of classic heroes - Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. Fifty-two per cent said yes. A majority believes that two goals against Switzerland, one of the weaker presences, if not the weakest in Euro 2004, has brought a confirmation of greatness.

There is something crazed about such a reaction, but this is no time to sneer at football's uninitiated. Unquestionably, Rooney became the hottest item on the football market yesterday, a target for all of the world's most powerful clubs, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus and, of course, the hugely funded Chelsea of Roman Abramovich. David Moyes - Rooney's Scottish-bred, unromantic manager at Everton who for two years has been handling the boy as carefully as he might a hand grenade with the pin half removed - has watched his protégé's emergence on the European stage with violently torn emotions these past few days.

He knows now that he can sell Rooney - and, for a while, become the pariah of half the football-obsessed city of Liverpool - and collect as much as £40m, munificent seed money for the rebuilding of a club which only narrowly escaped relegation from the Premiership a few weeks ago. But if Moyes, who in his own playing days achieved modest success with much hard labour, sees the chance to make his own professional life easier, he also has great fear for the future of the kid he has termed "the last of the backstreet footballers".

Wayne Rooney - who now lives with his teenage girlfriend Colleen in a luxurious house in upmarket Formby near the former mansion of John Moores, the one-time chairman of his club, the builder of the Littlewoods pools fortune and long seen on Merseyside as the ultimate success story - is not so much a son of Liverpool as one of its more stereotypical emanations. He likes fish and chips and has the body shape to prove it. Had he been born 20 years earlier, he would have served well enough as the model for Cilla Black's hit-parade song about the Scouse kid with the mucky face.

If he lacks even the relatively smooth finish of a practised celebrity like Beckham, he certainly knows who he is and what he can do. Recently, he was asked how it felt to move from schoolboy football to the big-time Premiership. He gave his questioner a slightly withering look and said, "You know, I've been at Everton since I was nine." Until recently he would, after training with his Everton team-mates, round up his old friends and play football in the street.

That was something the legendary Everton star of the 1930s Dixie Dean - who has a statue outside Goodison - could do as long as he liked. But Rooney saw quickly enough that, with the paparazzi lurking, it was something he had to consign to his past. Already the contradictions between who he is, and who he could only possibly be, and the new world into which he is inevitably being drawn have brought clear tension.

His first appearance on national television beyond the football field brought an opening squall of negative publicity. He was voted the country's outstanding young sports star on the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year contest after his first season with Everton, and some were shocked by his gauche performance. His tie was unbuttoned and he chewed gum.

For his 18th birthday, his agent hired Aintree racecourse and invited pop stars including Atomic Kitten. Rooney had originally planned a few beers with his family and friends in a pub in the tough Croxteth area of Liverpool where he grew up. So was it a celebration or an ordeal? Rooney remained non-committal, though, interestingly, when it came time to plan a similar bash for his girlfriend, it did go on in an unpretentious local hostelry. The occasion was marked by fights among relatives.

Now the force of celebrity is pushing him back behind the walls of his posh house and this is where the fears of a man like Moyes accelerate. Protected by his own people, living life as much as possible as he had always known it, given limited exposure by his club and the Football Association which runs England's affairs, the Rooney phenomenon might just be shielded from the worst effects of instant celebrity.

What happened in Coimbra, however, has had the effect on these careful calculations of a shell burst. "Roo's the Man" scream the headlines, and yesterday in England's team headquarters some hasty defences were being put in place. "Before this tournament we did anticipate such a development," said an FA spokesman, "and that's why we laid on a pre-tournament press conference with him after consulting with his agent and his club. We wanted him to have a gentle introduction to the pressures which everybody here expected to come to him soon enough.

"Now we don't have anything scheduled for him in the next few days. Sven [Goran Eriksson, the England team coach] knows we have to do all we can to make life as normal as possible for him in the next few days. Wayne has done magnificently, but everybody has to try to realise he is still only 18 years old."

While Rooney conducted himself coolly after his onslaught on the Swiss on Thursday night, taking the impeccable stance of the player who had merely had the good fortune to take the chances created by his team-mates, some old pros believe that while Rooney's impact for England here in this tournament has been hugely beneficial it has stoked up pressures on him which might, or might not, be supportable.

One said here today, "As the goals went in, you couldn't helping thinking first about the reaction they were going to create. The truth is that he had played well here, rather than great, and the goals he scored, while well taken, were not the kind to light up the heavens. But celebrity is going to sweep him away now, hopefully at not too much cost.

"The good news is that he is a remarkable, freakish talent and, perhaps more than people like Beckham and Gascoigne ever were, is much more rooted in the game. He has tremendous natural talent and strength and his greatest asset is like that of all great players: he can instinctively gauge the stride of an opponent and then produce something that leaves his marker destroyed. You cannot make players like Wayne Rooney. They happen. The terrible thing, though, as we saw with Gascoigne particularly, is that they can be unmade."

For the moment, though, the football world must wait not on the talent but the character of the boy who once sent his Everton chairman, showbiz impresario Bill Kenwright, running out of a large house shouting "Rooney, Rooney". Kenwright happened to be staying at the home of an associate in Oyster Bay, the retreat of rich New Yorkers, and the call of the fan went flying across Long Island Sound. Kenwright had picked up a Rooney goal on cable TV. "Anyone who heard me must have thought I was mad," said Kenwright. In the wake of the break-out in Coimbra, he can console himself with membership of a new and much wider company.

For Rooney, yesterday was a time of strategic retreat behind the walls of England's heavy security in Lisbon. While his team-mates talked about his extraordinary maturity, both physically and mentally - "the other great thing Wayne has," said midfielder Frank Lampard, "is tremendous natural aggression" - Rooney played some of his favourite DVDs. Most prominently, they include the work of northern comedian Peter Kay, and especially his work in a series of irreverent beer TV adverts.

Rooney's particular favourite is when Kay breaks up a gently conducted game of keepie-uppie football in a park with a massive booting of the ball over a fence. He then declares with an expression of some brutality: "'Ave it." He also likes the shocking advice of Kay's character to his nervous young daughter who calls on the mobile phone to say she is worried about hidden monsters in her bedroom, only to be told she should be more worried about burglars breaking through the windows.

Rough humour, no doubt, for a young superstar with still visibly rough edges. But then maybe off the field, just as on it, he is some way older than his years. Certainly it may well be true that, after these past few days in Portugal, he has a clearer idea of where his greatest opponent plays. It is not in the middle of an international defence but at the starry heart of the celebrity game. That, at least, had to be the best hope on the day when the nation went mad for the kid from Liverpool.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 24 October 1985 in Liverpool.

Height: Five foot nine.

Family: Engaged to Colleen McLoughlin, 18. His father, Wayne senior, is an unemployed labourer. His mother, Jeanette, is a dinner lady. Two brothers, Graham, 15, and John, 12, are both on Everton's books.

Education: De La Salle School, Liverpool.

Career: Premiership debut for Everton against Spurs on 17 August 2002; youngest player to score for England (against Macedonia, in September 2003), and the youngest scorer in the European Championship finals (against Switzerland last Thursday).

Nicknames: Roonaldo.

He says...: "For me, I'm a young lad here to enjoy myself and do the best I can - and you always enjoy it when you win and score as well."

They say...: "Potentially the greatest England forward ever" - Gary Lineker, TV presenter and former England striker.

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