The first morning of England's challenge at Euro 2004 and even the most experienced members of the squad would admit to a certain tension about the prospect of facing the holders France – not the ideal opening game for anyone, let alone a side carrying such high expectations as the one christened a golden generation. Gary Neville was certainly feeling the weight: "Don't get me wrong, we'd be excited, but 99 per cent would also be anxious, nervous, worried about the consequences." One rather younger member did not seem to share the concern. "I remember Wayne Rooney saying 'I can't wait, I can't wait, just get me out there."
Neville's mind went back 18 months to a reserve game against Everton who as he recalls in his typically forthright autobiography fielded "this stocky bull of a kid, 16 years old, rolling the ball under his feet like he was the main man". He soon would be, for Everton, for England at that 2004 tournament and within three months for Manchester United, scoring ahat-trick on his belated debut against Fenerbahce after costing the club £25.6m.
Rooney has often scored his goals in clusters and today he goes into the home game against Chelsea amid a patch that is purple even by his standards, with successive Premier League hat-tricks behind him against Arsenal and Bolton. Admirers can get 33-1 on another one, which in the circumstances looks an unusual act of generosity by those normally parsimonious bookmakers.
For Neville, now observing from the television studio rather than the pitch or training ground, Rooney has reached his peak years, a month ahead of his 26th birthday; and done so, remarkably, within 11 months of committing his greatest error by announcing a desire to leave the club.
"He was badly advised," is his former team-mate's charitable interpretation. "It was so out of character for him to be like that. But he misread the situation, there's no doubt about that. I don't think he was going through a great time, he'd come out of a very difficult World Cup, had things written about him, had big things happen in his life. When you're not thinking clearly you can make bad decisions. We all have. The key is you apologise and get on with it and he's certainly done that."
Neville dates the return of the old Rooney to that sensational overhead kick to beat Manchester City early this year: "The confidence seemed to come back into his body, he looked relaxed again. Only time does that. You just have to come out the other side. You're not panicked by things that happen off the pitch. It's like Alex Ferguson now. He knows he's seen everything before and so he knows how to deal with it. As a player you get there at maybe 27. Wayne's got there now because he started early."
Ferguson endorsed that view ahead of today's game. "He has a maturity now. He's in his mid 20s but he's older than most of the other players now. We have lost five players of 30 and over from last year. The evidence is always on the football field and he is showing maturity in his game and he's enjoying it."
So he should be, after eight goals in four League games this season, which ought to give pause to his England captain John Terry today. Andre Villas Boas will approach his first duel with United with some trepidation too, having doubtless warned his troops that Rooney could once again be either the main striker or the schemer dropping off just behind Javier Hernandez, which makes him more difficult to mark.
Neville prefers him right at the front, "on the shoulder of the last defender", while admiring without reservation the work ethic that can have him chasing back in defence even in the final minutes when a game is won. "In some ways British players are too honest like that. The likes of Wayne and Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, because of their inbuilt spirit, they always want to come back and help the team. It's just our culture. Wayne is an inspiration to the fans, to the players. When you see your best player working as hard as that, there's no excuse for any other player not to work to that level and that's what the great players and great leaders have."
Suddenly, as Ferguson said, Rooney is a senior figure and Neville believes he has taken to the responsibility. "His standards are high, he wants to achieve a great standard all the time and demands the best from people around him. He won't accept mediocrity. He's one of a dying breed of British players, that old-fashioned classic leader. In terms of an inspiration for me he's a Bryan Robson and a Roy Keane."
Having made the difficult decision to walk away from United last February, Neville finds himself trying to look at them with a more detached eye. It remains an admiring one, not least for the way Ferguson has refashioned the squad: "You've got [Tom] Cleverley and [Danny] Welbeck back from loan and all of a sudden he's added [David] De Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young and you've got a completely new team and people don't realise it's happening."
He is hardly alone in his admiration for how they have begun the season, yet retains that inbuilt suspicion of taking anything for granted. "Usually they don't start that quickly, but we had a lesson in the mid-2000s up against Arsenal and Chelsea, when we ended up too far behind. At the moment they're playing incredible football, the best start I've ever seen. I think if you look in six months time they might not play as great but you'll see an intensity and an edge, a little bit more aggression and level of concentration. City may look the biggest rivals but I said at the start you still have to go with United and Chelsea for experience. With Chelsea only being two points behind, no one will write them off. With strength in defence, a good goalkeeper, Anelka, Drogba, Sturridge, Torres, Mata – they've got a decent side.
''There's no doubt they're capable. The intriguing thing for this season is how it goes on with Manchester United, City and Chelsea. I don't think anybody knows. Or how Arsenal are going to recover, how Liverpool do after signing all those players. There's so many questions to be asked this year, so many interesting things about this season. It's great." He is soundinglike a naturalSky Sports man already.
Last word, on Rooney: "I see someone who can pass, shoot, dribble, score, head, left foot, right foot. He looks in control and the first few games this season he's looked fantastic. I think these are his peak years." Chelsea beware.
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