Rooney - the boy who could be king

Manchester United's new signing has unprecedented talent but must avoid pitfalls
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When he was a child, or at least a smaller child than he is now, Wayne Rooney would play football on what once passed for a bowling green near his parents' house in Croxteth. He would always pretend to be one of three footballers: Paul Gascoigne, Duncan Ferguson or Alan Shearer and those who yearn for talent not to be destroyed must hope reality will bring Rooney closer to the Newcastle captain than either of his other idols.

The easy temptation is to say that Rooney is Gascoigne. The parallels scream at you, obvious even to the England squad in Portugal, who christened him "Wazza". Both of their mothers were dinner ladies, both fathers worked as labourers. Both began their careers with the only club they had dreamed of playing for. Both spurned massively improved contracts from that same club and demanded a transfer to somewhere more glamorous.

Both were drawn back to their boyhood roots, be it the streets of Croxteth or the Dunston Excelsior Working Men's Club. Both had horribly messy private lives, both fell under the control of a powerful agent. And when they went, the fans of Newcastle and Everton were not wholly disappointed to see them go.

The difference is that Wayne Rooney is a better player at 18 than Gascoigne, better than Diego Maradona, who was not considered ready for the 1978 World Cup when 18, and perhaps better than anyone at that age, save maybe Pele. Arsène Wenger certainly thought him superior to Michael Owen. The Arsenal manager remarked that the difference between Owen and Rooney was that while Owen as a teenager already looked the "complete striker", Rooney was "the complete footballer".

While Gascoigne, even as a young man, dominated dressing-rooms, Rooney appeared, to Owen at least, relatively shy and self-contained. He latched on to Steven Gerrard, a man from a similar background, brought up in Huyton, the tough outer Liverpool suburb that bred the likes of Peter Reid. "The best advice I gave to Wayne Rooney was that you don't just get judged on your football, it's how you behave on and off the pitch," Gerrard said, although his words have lately been thrown away.

When Rooney returned from Lisbon a wounded hero, his agent, Paul Stretford, thought he might earn £100m over the course of his career - five times what Gascoigne calculated he made from football - mainly through advertising endorsements. The companies targeted, Stretford said, would be blue-chip enterprises. Stretford, who took Rooney from his first agent, Peter McIntosh, was determined to maximise the boy's potential.

Rooney's salary when he left Everton was £670,000. Stretford never replied to Everton's offer to increase that to £2.5m but he claimed to have earned his client £10m from sponsors. The publicist, Max Clifford, however, sounded a warning: "Everything depends on his performances on the pitch and how he handles the media. If he has good relations with the media, it will comfort sponsors. It could make a £50m difference to his commercial value over the next five years. If Rooney is not carefully handled, it can make big-name sponsors very nervous."

Rooney has been sometimes miserably handled by Stretford, who persuaded him to sign an exclusive contract with The Sun, a newspaper still loathed on Merseyside because of its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. The Sun showed its loyalty by turning on its client and printing a series of stories about Rooney's links to prostitutes, including the allegation that he signed autographs in a brothel.

The Liverpool Echo, the region's most significant newspaper, which has been prevented from speaking to members of Rooney's family, gleefully reported that this might have cost the player up to £30m in cancelled endorsements. The tabloid revelations were, according to sources within Goodison Park, the principal reason why Rooney was so anxious to leave Merseyside before the transfer window closed. They claimed he was not that bothered where he went.

The moment of Rooney's impact can be precisely dated. October 19 2002, 4.50pm; the long pass from Thomas Gravesen, brought beautifully under control with a single touch and then, instinctively knowing David Seaman was off his line, the shot that ensured Arsenal's first defeat in 10 months. Rooney had been on the pitch for around nine minutes.

"He is the biggest English talent I have seen since I took over at Highbury," Wenger said afterwards. "He is supposed to be 16 but I didn't know 16-year-olds could do things like that. He is everything you could dream of; intelligence, quick reactions, strong running with the ball. You can put him in the centre, you can put him on the wing, you can play him behind the striker."

Owen, whose upbringing as the son of a professional footballer in comfortable surroundings in Chester was in the starkest contrast to the street footballer from inner-city Liverpool, thought the acclaim Rooney received was, initially, wildly out of proportion to his achievements. In his autobiography, Owen wrote he could not understand why so much adulation was heaped on Rooney's shoulders after just 10 games.

Everton, however, had long known Rooney's worth. When Adrian Heath was assistant manager at Goodison, his youth team coach, Colin Harvey, bluntly informed him that Wayne Rooney would be the greatest player in the club's history. Harvey, part of Everton's championship-winning side of 1970, was, said Heath, not a man to give praise easily. After he had scored the winner in the Merseyside Under-19 derby, Rooney was paraded on the pitch at Goodison; while the club chairman, Bill Kenwright, informed any reporters who would listen that Everton possessed a talent that would make the loss of Francis Jeffers to Arsenal appear almost irrelevant.

However, for someone whose father bought him an Everton shirt on the day he was born, a day when they were reigning champions of England, his achievements at the club he idolised will seem rather modest: sixty seven appearances and 15 goals. His displays for England eclipsed anything he did at Everton.

Those who argued that Rooney needed a dose of Sir Alex Ferguson to calm him should remember that his relationship with David Moyes, a man cut from the same rough Glaswegian cloth, was, by the end, non-existent. Originally, Moyes saw the way in which Ferguson had handled Ryan Giggs a decade before as his template. However, the Everton manager became increasingly irritated by his charge. Nevertheless, even on Friday, after he had been handed a written transfer request, Moyes was still arguing Rooney should not abandon the club that bred him.

Rooney's roots go so very deep. To those in the Gwladys Street end, he was "one of us", the people's player for the people's club. He may bank at Coutts, holiday in Florida rather than north Wales and send his parents on Queen Mary II, but neither he nor his family have changed overmuch.

It may have secured their financial future but Everton will be poorer for his leaving. In his first season, he seemed to be the touchstone that could drive the club back towards its past. It was 1995, the year of Everton's last trophy, that he was discovered playing for Copplehouse Under-10s in the Walton and Kirkdale League by a train driver called Bob Pendleton. "You could tell he was special straight away, you could feel your hair raising," Pendleton recalled. "I've been asked if I'll ever find another Wayne Rooney and the answer is always: 'Jesus, no'."

Benchbound Smith in the firing line

Alan Smith is the likely casualty of Wayne Rooney's transfer to Manchester United despite the striker's fine start to his own career at Old Trafford. With Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer injured, Smith has effectively led the line. However, when Rooney and Van Nistelrooy are both available the former Leeds United striker may find himself on the bench alongside Saha.

Rooney's long-term position may be just off the leading striker. The position provides him with the scope to run at defenders or shoot from distance. Alternatives leave United thin in midfield. Smith can console himself with the knowledge that injuries, fixture congestion and his own versatility will ensure he plays a fair amount of games.

Rooney in the hole

(4-4-1-1)

Howard

G Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre

Ronaldo, Scholes, Keane, Giggs

Rooney

Van Nistelrooy

Rooney heading a diamond

(4-1-2-1-2)

Howard

G Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre

Keane

Scholes, Giggs

Rooney

Smith, Van Nistelrooy

Rooney in a trio

(4-3-3)

Howard

G Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre

Scholes, Keane, Giggs

Smith, Van Nistelrooy, Rooney

Rooney in a christmas tree

(4-3-2-1)

Howard

G Neville, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre

Fletcher, Keane, Scholes

Rooney, Giggs

Van Nistelrooy

Glenn Moore

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