Rooney at 20

Today, as England's young talisman celebrates the birthday which ends a remarkable teenage odyssey, Sam Wallace argues that none of his peers across the world can rival his achievements
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The Independent Football

Today, the teenage Rooney is no more: he is 20 years old and the two years and nine months since that evening in the Joe Mercer Suite at Goodison Park have demanded that the country's greatest young footballer develop in full gaze of the nation. Every goal, every tackle, every word exchanged with a referee; his fiancée, his family holidays, his agent, even his Uncle Eugene - everything, everybody held up for examination. There has never been an English sporting adolescence like it. Most teenagers answer to their parents: Rooney seems to answer to an entire country. That he has come this far, achieved this much, is a triumph in itself.

So it is worth remembering first that, at 20, Manchester United and England have in Rooney the greatest young player in the world, without exception.

Fernando Torres? Nineteen months older and a fringe player in Spain's Euro 2004 team while Rooney inspired England. Robinho? Twenty-one months older, still unproven in Europe and physically a waif compared to Rooney. Arjen Robben? Also senior by 21 months and not yet capable of dominating matches in the way that Rooney can. Cristiano Ronaldo? Eight months older and not as consistent. The great hope of Italy, Antonio Cassano, is 23, in dispute with his club, Roma, and out of favour; Jose Antonio Reyes is 22 and no more durable than when he came to the Premiership. Rooney has reached maturity in his profession sooner, quicker and better than any of his generation.

For the past decade, Rooney has been placed on a fast-track system typical of English football. He has rarely played among his own age group. At the age of seven he began playing for an Under-12s team; by the time he was 13 he was judged ready to go on tour with Everton's Under-15s side; at 15 he was in the club's Under-19s side. When he was picked to make his senior debut for Everton against Tottenham in August 2002 aged 16 years and 297 days it cannot have felt much different to the many other leaps of age and experience he had been asked to make through his young life. Life as a modern football prodigy has meant a constant battle to thrive among those more experienced than him. The end of his teenage years might just come as a relief: as a senior international there are no more rungs left to climb.

Rooney's achievements can be easily measured against those nearer to his own age; it is comparing his ability with that of past generations that becomes more difficult. Another Manchester United striker celebrated his birthday this month, although Sir Bobby Charlton's 68th is not likely to attract quite so much attention. He made his debut for United in October 1956, five days short of his 19th birthday and, like Rooney, lost in an FA Cup final in his first season at the club. No one is better qualified to place Rooney among his United predecessors.

"You can compare him with Duncan Edwards; the one thing I will say is that they both have the same enthusiasm and desire to play the game - [but they are] completely different in their characters," Charlton said at the weekend. "And sometimes you can compare him with George Best. It's his touch - there are certain times when you think, 'Oh he's lost it' and then he hasn't. He's got this desire, and the one thing I really like about him is that whenever he gets round about goal, he does look to score. He is lethal if you allow him to be, and defenders have to close him down very quickly.

"He's just a marvellous talent and a lot of it is God-given, but you have to apply it properly. He just gets you excited; you want him to get the ball. He has the problems that young people have and he will realise that if he gets into trouble the only person he will hurt is himself - but he will learn that. We feel very fortunate that we have got him because he is the most exciting, sensational young player and if he continues to improve as he has done I don't see any reason why he could not be one of the great players."

Rooney acquired his intimate understanding of the geometry of a football match - his ability to read the way in which a passage of play will unfold - from a football career spent almost exclusively surviving in the company of older players. It is a wisdom that he allies to a compelling instinct for risk. In a competition to strike the crossbar from the edge of the area during an England training session last season every player chipped delicately, measuring the distance with each attempt, making minute adjustments each time. Apart from Rooney, who drew back his right foot and thundered each ball as hard as he could at the target. He was not the first to succeed, but it said something about the certainty of his own approach.

It is still difficult to remember a single truly malicious foul by Rooney in the three years he has played professional football - a thoughtless shove on Iker Casillas last November at the Bernabeu was dangerous but not violent - although there can be no doubt that at times he plays on the very edge of his temper.

His sending off against Villarreal in the Champions' League - a second yellow card for sarcastically applauding referee Kim Milton Nielsen - looked absurdly petulant taken in isolation. Yet in the context of the game, Rooney was the only player that night in Spain for whom a drab group match at the start of a long European campaign seemed to matter. He sets his stakes high regardless of the contest and it is hard to imagine him playing without that sense of brinkmanship.

His twenties will bring a different set of challenges, not least the libel case against The Sun newspaper over allegations concerning Rooney's relationship with his fiancée Coleen McLoughlin that is due to start little more than a month before the World Cup finals. Whether even Britain's biggest-selling newspaper is prepared to do something as unpopular as take on England's most important footballer at such a crucial time could prove the most telling measure of Rooney's fame as he approaches his first World Cup, especially as the clamour for him to be at his very best - in mind and body - will only intensify as June approaches.

As he looks back upon his adolescence today, Rooney can say, with 27 caps for England and 10 goals, he has done more than most of his age who content themselves with a degree course and a part-time job. For those teenagers, especially those who come from more comfortable parts of the country than Rooney's native Croxteth, there is a familiar, well-mapped path through school and on to adulthood. They are guided through a process that has been refined and improved over generations and there is a sense of optimism and hope about what they might achieve.

There are no open days for prodigal footballers, no prospectuses which can help prepare them. Unlike most young people Rooney has had to reach 20 on the basis of his own instincts, without being able to draw upon the experience of those who have done it before. And unlike the rest of his generation at university or starting their first jobs he has been stalked by a continual expectation that he will fail, that he is doomed to be another Paul Gascoigne. Instead he has thrived, achieved way beyond his years and although the end of the teenage era is supposed to signal independence, Rooney won that long ago. The only dependency comes from this country's football team and their reliance upon the brilliance of the young man who celebrates his 20th birthday today.

Admirable qualities: How Rooney is rated by others in the game

* ARSENE WENGER He is the biggest English talent I have seen since I took over at Highbury. He is supposed to be 16 but I didn't know 16-year-olds could do things like that. He has everything you could dream of: intelligence, quick reactions, strong running with the ball. (After Rooney ended the Gunners' first unbeaten record in October 2002)

* ALEX FERGUSON You see players do things in training and you realise you're looking at something really good. Rooney could become one of the best strikers England have produced.

* SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON It's dangerous to say that Rooney is Pele or Maradona, but I think we have that quality. Wayne's quality is incredible, he has everything. In one more year, he should be even better. After training sessions, you have to hide the ball. Otherwise he would never leave the pitch. (Last May)

* ZICO One of Pele's great qualities was that he could take any situation in his stride, and I think Wayne can do that, too. (Last month)

* THIERRY HENRY He reminds me of me. I look at Rooney now and I know he wouldn't have to think about it. He's like I was at that age. (At Euro 2004)

* FRANK LAMPARD He is a midfielder's dream. You can give him any sort of ball and he will bring it down, turn and make things happen.