Rooney in a rush to join the greats

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Paul Gascoigne, aged 23 at Italia 90, Michael Owen, aged 18 at France 98 and Wayne Rooney, aged 18 at Euro 2004. The stars shine earlier. The fear is they may fade quicker, too. And, maybe, that vulnerability is part of their appeal. It is certainly part of their precocity.

Paul Gascoigne, aged 23 at Italia 90, Michael Owen, aged 18 at France 98 and Wayne Rooney, aged 18 at Euro 2004. The stars shine earlier. The fear is they may fade quicker, too. And, maybe, that vulnerability is part of their appeal. It is certainly part of their precocity.

Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, the Everton manager David Moyes and everyone connected with Rooney knew that a day would dawn such as yesterday when the talents of a teenager from Liverpool would dominate not just England's but Europe's media.

It was only a question of time. And no one is surprised that it has happened sooner rather than later. Sir Bobby Robson compared Rooney to Pele and Colin Harvey, the director of Everton's youth academy, aligned him with Diego Maradona, while Gary Lineker talked of "potentially the best England player of my lifetime". Martin O'Neill paid tribute to his "individual brilliance".

Amid it all, it is easy to forget that, when he rose to head England into the lead against Switzerland ­ placing himself into the record books as the youngest scorer in the European Championship finals ­ Rooney was 46 days older than Owen when he scored his World Cup goal against Argentina in 1998.

Indeed Owen, who provided the cross for Rooney, struck a much better goal even if, eventually, it became subsumed in the mêlée of David Beckham's dismissal and England's exit.

Owen's international career, hopefully temporarily, is currently undergoing a similar fate. The weight of expectation has
already been passed. As the 24-year-old Liverpool striker sat on the bench, substituted, against France, he watched as Rooney dropped short, easily shook of the powerful Lilian Thuram and surged forward from the halfway line. Owen will have been reminded of his own amazing run, executed in St-Etienne as Rooney finished with a body swerve past Mikaël Silvestre, earning a penalty, which should have ended the match.

But what was more amazing was that the incident occurred at a time when England were on the retreat. While others wilted, Rooney commanded possession, held up the ball, took the fight, offered an option. He appeared the senior striker. At just 18.

The mind flicked back to that game in Sunderland last year, in the qualification campaign, when Rooney ran straight through, and sometimes over, the Turkish defence. But it is not all just power. Again in that game there was awareness and delicacy ­ spurning a shooting chance for a clever pass to a better-positioned Owen.

Back to the France match and there was a case for saying that Rooney came of age not when he set off on that run, but when he performed that 360-degree spin in front of the world's best player, Zinedine Zidane, who usually holds the copyright on such graceful manoeuvres. It was a statement of fearless intent without which England would have lacked the essential quality of menace, of speed and unpredictability that marks out the better teams.

In that, and, of course, in the concerns over Rooney's temperament and bulky physique, there are clear echoes of Gascoigne who, after Italia 90, was described, in the London Review of Books no less, as "fierce and comic, formidable and vulnerable, orphan-like, waif-like... tense and upright, a priapic monolith". Rooney shares some of those (pretentiously expressed) gauche traits but, thankfully, appears much more grounded. Football, also, has moved on. Rooney's support network is greater, more protective. But they are essentially different characters, even if Rooney, scurrilously, has been assumed in some quarters to be as socially vulnerable.

Yet what appeals about Rooney the player, as with Gascoigne, is simple. It is the range and depth of his talent; the power and the precision; the surges of surprising pace, given his squat physique, and the
intricate dribbling. Rooney has vision, his positioning is extraordinary, he is brave and, above all, believes in himself.

He already appears more comfortable with the media. He is certainly comfortable with the environment he is in. Rooney himself retells the story of his first training session with the England squad which ended with a run and chip over David James. The players stopped and applauded. They were applauding again as man-of-the-match Rooney walked back into the dressing room in Coimbra on Thursday.

Tord Grip, Eriksson's assistant, was asked whether he had ever before seen a player who was so good so young. "Yes," he replied, "Michael Owen." Eriksson, despite his usual circumspection, did not agree placing Rooney ahead of Roberto Baggio and Rui Costa, other talents he nurtured when they were young. Should Rooney continue his form throughout the championship he will have made the greatest impact by a teenager since Pele in the 1958 World Cup.

It may well be that it means Rooney should leave Everton sooner rather than later. After all, his performances in Portugal need to be weighed against a disappointing season in a disappointing team. With nine goals and 12 cautions and much time spent on the substitutes' bench, partly in order to protect him, it has been frustrating.

It does not help a player of his talent to be in such a struggling team. Moyes knows that. He also knows it would be a shame, and of all the testimonies paid to the player's talent it is that of his club manager which should hold greatest weight.

After another sparkling England display, against Liechtenstein last September, Rooney was not obliged to report until 2pm the next day for training at Everton. Instead he arrived at 9.30am, the first at the training ground, and while others were changing, he was already thumping a ball against a wall outside.

It encapsulates his eagerness and his energy. Hopefully he will remain forever untainted and also retain what Moyes has described as his humility. If he does ­ and with his talent ­ he will be, without doubt, one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.

ROONEY WATCH SIX EXPERTS GIVE THEIR OPINIONS ON ENGLAND'S BOY WONDER

Arsène Wenger Arsenal manager

"Rooney looks unstoppable at the moment. He's the key to England's offensive game. I thought a lot of his team-mates played without much confidence, but he looked to me like a youngster without nerves. He just played his natural game. He didn't seem to have any fears. Michael Owen seems to be slowly getting his game together, but at the moment Rooney is the force at the front in the England team."

Terry Butcher Former England defender and BBC pundit

"Wayne Rooney was the star of the show and deserves all the credit he has got. He scored one goal and is claiming another, which will do wonders for his confidence, and he has delivered two big performances in Euro 2004. I didn't want to tempt fate, but I did say before the tournament that he could be the star of it, not just for England but the whole of Euro 2004. Rooney makes things happen."

Scot Gemmill Former Everton midfielder who played with Rooney.

"If I am honest, I am a bit surprised at how much he has influenced these games. We all knew what he could do at Everton but to do it internationally is another thing. I am sure he will cope with the adulation, he is a very well grounded lad, who takes great strength from his family. I don't know if it's too early to put him on a pedestal, you don't do what he's just done, without an awful lot of ability."

Adrian Heath Assistant manager when Rooney joined Everton.

"Colin Harvey was a great youth-team coach and does not give praise easily. But when he describes a lad at 13 as being potentially the best player in the history of Everton, you take notice. If he's got the talent, then you have to ask: 'Does he have the mentality to cope?' He's proved he does. Then you have to ask: 'Does he have the ability to make the step up to international football?' It's not a problem."

Graham Kelly FA chief executive when Gazzamania broke.

"I don't think we're going overboard too soon on Rooney. To me, he's got the lot. With Gascoigne the one thing the FA tried to do, to prevent him going off the rails, was surrounding him with people he respected. The closest we got with that was when Terry Venables was manager, but even approaching Euro '96 he was pretty much out of control. You just hope it doesn't happen with Rooney."

Paul Gascoigne Former England international who made a similar impact at the 1990 World Cup

"There's no one like Paul Gascoigne! But the kid's going to be something really special as long as he keeps his feet on the ground. He can go on to achieve unbelievable things and if he keeps on playing like that, he could come back to the same sort of reception that I got after the 1990 World Cup in Italy."

Jason Burt and Tim Rich

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