It is one of the slightly lost details of Wayne Rooney’s unveiling as a Manchester United player, but at the time Sir Alex Ferguson felt the need to defend blowing United’s entire transfer budget for the following year on a teenager. “The fact is he is 18 and he could spend all his career at this club,” Ferguson pointed out to the gathered media while his player, all gawky jug ears and clear, hard, unblinking teenage talent, held up a red shirt and smiled politely.
Four weeks later Rooney scored a hat-trick on his Champions League debut, leading the Manchester Evening News to note slightly saltily: “To some pundits it appeared to be a huge gamble. But surely not any more.”
No, surely not any more. Thirteen years on Rooney is Manchester United’s all-time top scorer, one of the great striking accolades in British football history passed with a superb free-kick to claim a point at Stoke. Rooney has taken 546 games to get there, 212 fewer than Bobby Charlton needed. In the process he has filled the roles of teenage wild card, young‑guns‑Ronaldo-wingman, senior pro, club captain, centre-forward, No10, right winger, inside-forward, central midfielder, prince of the good times and – latterly – last barnacled cling-on of a fading empire.
Ferguson was right too. A player who might have gone to Newcastle had they stumped up another £5m has spent the entire bloom of his peak years in Manchester red. Meanwhile that £27m fee looks like one of the best-value budget-blowing transfer deals ever made. Bear in mind the same summer Jonathan Woodgate went to Real Madrid for just over half as much, and the following year Chelsea would pay £21m of actual, real money for Shaun Wright-Phillips, scorer of four league goals across four seasons of meandering about on the wing.
For now, though, this is simply a moment to offer a little fond applause. Looming above the details are three points. First, this is a genuinely stark achievement, a record that in an era of ever-dulling superlatives really does deserve to be celebrated.
It has become a shared reflex to deride and belittle such achievements. No doubt there is a separate tract to be written on the peculiar syzygy of public reaction to its football stars: on one hand unconditional, heavily monetised fascination; on the other a shrieking rage at their perceived failings, in most cases at footballers who exist solely as moving blobs on a screen.
And yet Rooney’s record simply stands on its own. Forty years from now his goals, like those of Charlton – who was also sniffed at by some in his time – will also be held as a mark of ultimacy and a stick to beat the feats of those who follow. Resist, for now, the urge to dig the dirt from under the fingernails, to engage in the usual whataboutery. This is a rare peak.
Secondly Rooney has been relentless in a variety of roles other than centre-forward. This month he became the third Premier League-era player to reach 100 assists after Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard, both of whom were, of course, midfielders. Meanwhile Rooney has scored 15 goals or more every year at United apart from 2014-15. His first five seasons brought three titles, one Champions League and 97 goals at just under 20 per season. The last eight have seen just two league titles and one FA Cup, but 148 goals for Rooney and at a slightly improved rate. Whatever the surrounding weather, in both good and slightly less good times, his sheer appetite has been remarkable.
Third point, and related: United’s fans, the ones who go to the stadium or watch every game from afar, seem to have largely appreciated this. For all the howls off-stage, he is generally cheered at Old Trafford. As he should be. Tune out the noises off and Rooney’s combination of trophies and goals makes him the most influential player in English football of the last quarter-century.
In similar vein that combination of goals and assists makes him a candidate, alongside Ian Rush, Thierry Henry and assorted venerable names from the yellowing football yearbooks, for the title of most influential attacking player at a single club in the history of English football.
It is necessary to grope around for comparables at this point. Charlton is the most obvious. His goals came in 758 games. He never benefited from playing as the team’s central striker. But Rooney has also done more than his share of running and tracking and passing. It is in reality a largely meaningless comparison, one that yokes together distinct eras and distinct roles.
More meaningful comparisons could be made with Michael Owen, also a modern teenage prodigy. Owen scored 222 goals in 482 games, a fine record that tapered away with injuries. Similarly Robbie Fowler was arguably the most exciting Premier League tyro of them all, a pure goalscoring genius who scored 31, 36 and 31 goals in his first three full seasons, after which he played around the world until he was 37 but never got to 20 in a season again.
Injury, overwork, distracting riches, the relentless fury of English club football. There are violent forces at work on the teenage prodigy. Rooney is often portrayed as a compromised player, a what-might-have-been. In reality he’s a survivor, a patched-up, bruised and scarred and hair-woven footballing machine, still just about cutting it, still making it up that hill, tyres almost bald, axle shuddering.
As far as other comparisons go Alan Shearer remains the gold scoring-standard in the modern English game with 379 in 734 games. Rush scored 346 in 660 for Liverpool, the greatest single-club haul of any modern player. Beyond that Rooney finds himself surrounded mainly by names from the deep, glorious past. Most goals for one club in the top tier remains Dixie Dean, with 377 in 431 for Everton, followed by Rush, Steve Bloomer of Derby County, the often slightly overlooked Roger Hunt and Jimmy Greaves, whose goal-to-games ratio is the best of all postwar players. Then comes Nat Lofthouse and a small crowd that includes Rooney, Charlton and Geoff Hurst. Say what you like, this is rare company, not least when football has never been so physically demanding, the schedule so tight.
Watching a reel of all those goals it is Rooney’s ability to adapt and survive that stands out. The early goals are just an unbound treat, all jangling limbs, fast-twitch feet, haring movement, capped with long shots, dinks, spanks: the extraordinary chip against Middlesbrough, the bouncing first-touch missile against Newcastle. One thing is clear. Young Rooney really did want to break the net.
He became a counterattacking force in the Ronaldo-Tevez years. In mid-career he matured into a close-range finisher, with a lovely deft habit of converting crosses with both feet. There was the chip against Portsmouth in January 2007, a goal he had been trying to score for about three years; the sensational breakaway against Bolton in March the same year, sprinting the length of the field alongside Ronaldo. Two supreme centre-forward’s headers against Roma were part of a run of seven headers in a row in 2010.
The Guardian Sport