June 2004, European Championships. Wayne Rooney. An 18-year-old bursts onto the scene, steals the headlines and is even tipped for Player of the Tournament after scoring four goals in the opening three games. His brief stint during his debut international competition saw him become the joint second top scorer alongside his future club teammate, Ruud van Nistlerooy).
He was on fire with stand-out performances and looked set to deliver on England’s hopes of winning a major competition for the first time in 40 years. Cruelly, fate held sway, as he suffered an injury early in the first half of the quarter-final against Portugal. Alas, the fairy tale had no happy ending.
His untimely departure not only ended England’s dreams but I would suggest that it scuppered his ability to reach his full potential. Since 2004, Rooney has failed to hit the heights on the international stage with quite the same vigour his entrance teased, despite now being England’s top scorer. You have to wonder what if temperance was exercised and he never got injured or torn apart by the media.
Two months after his performances for England, this new whizkid went on to break the transfer record on deadline day with his move to Manchester United and the scouse stalwart eventually became our captain. Sven-Goran Eriksson, the then England coach, heaped praise on Rooney after his performances: “I don’t remember anyone making such an impact since Pele in the 1958 World Cup… Rooney’s absolutely fantastic.” High praise indeed.
Arsene Wenger after Rooney’s winner against Everton in 2002: “Wayne Rooney is the greatest young English talent I have ever seen.”
The British press took to jumped on the bandwagon in extolling their new golden boy. “Finally, somebody to lead the charge in regaining the forgotten glories of 1966. Rejoice.” Yet, propping young players up on a pedestal like that has inherent and material dangers. If they fail to produce, the media will turn on them and knock a player down, the same player they helped put on the pedestal in the first place. That has happened to Rooney throughout his whole career.
Wayne looked to be the genuine article. At the time many thought he was the better player when compared to Cristiano Ronaldo. When speaking about his transfer from Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “I think we have got the best young player this country has seen in the past 30 years.”
This swaggering lad had a bright future ahead, a possible Ballon D’or even. Yet, over a decade later with Rooney now aged 30, we realise he peaked by coming fifth on the list of the world’s best players in 2011. That promise has never been fulfilled to the extent which it was built up to become and caution needs to be taken to make sure those mistakes don’t become a pattern.
Fast-forward to February 2016. An unexpected last minute injury to Anthony Martial prior to kick-off against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League saw the surprise inclusion of Marcus Rashford in the starting XI. “Rashford? Who is he” thought fans inside Old Trafford who were unfamiliar with United’s academy graduate but by the end of 90 minutes they certainly didn’t forget Rashford’s name after a magnificent brace on his debut. He immediately got the taste for goals and followed it up with a spectacular double in the 3-2 win over Arsenal before going on to score seven goals in his first 12 appearances.
Stealing words from Martin Samuel, Rashford has been the saviour of an otherwise underwhelming season once he received his battlefield promotion as a result of injuries to a skeleton-thin squad. Rashford had taken the opportunity given to him and hasn’t let go of it since. Rightly, Rashford has been earning praise from everyone who sees him and speaking about the 18-year-old, Sir Alex hailed him as “a sensation and one of the best in years”. Does that sound familiar?
Apart from the origins to their respective stories, Rashford and Rooney enjoyed an eerily similar rise to fame at United. At 18, both emphatically set the tone for the fans at Old Trafford by scoring on their debut in a European game – Rooney with a famous hat-trick against Fenerbahce, Rashford with a brace against FC Midtjylland. Both leap frogged the youth system and as Rooney went straight into the England team, is it right to expect the same of Rashford?
Rooney had made his international debut the year before Euro 2004 and already had five goals in 13 caps but his stunning emergence during the summer will be considered by most as the re-scripted start to his international career. Now, Rashford has the same amount of hype being heaped onto him given his miraculous start to top flight football.
Thankfully, the context is different for Rashford as with the sheer number of forwards available to Roy Hodgson this summer, all hopes are not pinned on him to deliver a major trophy for England, which is fortunate as it is unfair to tie the hopes and dreams of a nation on the shoulders of a kid, for club as well as country. Youthful exuberance should always be combined with experience in a fine balance but the weight shouldn’t tip overly in favour of the former. It can cause problems and endanger an otherwise promising career.
Use Wayne as a poignant reminder of what can happen if you toss teenage superstars into the deep-end too early. There’s no doubt he’s achieved substantially more than most yet one has to wonder if managed differently, could he have accomplished more?
Rooney is 30 and after 12 years at the club still hasn’t managed to surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s milestone of 249 goals – Ronaldo would’ve had that sorted by 2011/12 had he stayed. Could it be injuries and mismanagement or is he now simply burnt-out after setting the bar too high initially? Ronaldo (31) and Zlatan (34) still heavily out-score him, despite being his senior. It’s food for thought.
Roy Hodgson: “I can’t compare Wayne Rooney  with 2004.”
Examining his impressive track records before and after he was thrown into Euro 2004 hints that the pressure he was forced to endure had an impact on his game. He generally takes his time returning to form after injury but he was never the same again afterwards, not for England anyway. Thankfully it seems club and national coaches are airing on the side of caution as both believe it would be premature to include Rashford in the squad going to France this summer. That’s good news for United.
Reviewing old footage of what Wayne used to be like when United laid out the record transfer for the teenager, it’s a pity how to see how much he’s lost over the years. Age takes its toll of course but even a couple of years ago he’d admit he had changed as a player. Looking ahead, none of us would want to see the same fate befall our next bright young talent in Rashford who definitely has what it takes to go on and become a great. Euro 2016 might be around the corner but there’ll be a host of international tournaments for Rashford in the future, when the time is right.