Wayne Rooney: All-time England record goal scorer and leading goal scorer for Manchester United. His name now sits above legends like Law, Charlton and Best. There is no question he will go down as one of England and Manchester United’s greats. That is not even up for debate. Though Wayne is a couple of years younger than me, our careers began around the same time due to his freakish physique for a young teenage boy. He was built like a boxer and had the speed of a greyhound and was physically miles ahead of other teenage boys. If he hadn’t been born in England, we would have been asking to check his passport. Whenever I watch him play, it reminds me of a decision I made at 18 that changed the course of my career.
I was 18 years old and starting to make my way in a man’s game. The previous season, I had played over 30 first team games for Queens Park in Scotland and was now looking to improve and try to make a step up the footballing ladder into full-time football. I had a very inconsistent first season, not unusual for a young center back still developing physically but had come back preseason bigger, stronger and ready to prove myself.
Despite being an amateur club and competing in the lower divisions, we played our home matches at Hampden, Scotland’s national stadium. This was the best of many little perks we enjoyed compared to other players at our level. We didn’t get paid but it was a fantastic club to play for and a great place for a young player to learn the game.
One of the advantages we enjoyed was a glamorous preseason fixture list. The bigger teams were more than happy to come and play us at Hampden instead of going to some ramshackle stadium to play on a pitch that resembled a car park. Our first game back was against Hibs at home and a great chance for me to test myself against a full-time outfit. My confidence was up after a good preseason and I played well, catching the eye of the Hibs coaching staff and others watching. The following week, we played Dumbarton at a neutral venue before the one I was really looking forward to — Everton at Hampden Park, a chance to not only play against a full-time team, but top internationals from the Premiership. It was every young footballers’ dream.
After playing a stormer against Dumbarton, the coaches were so impressed they moved quickly to secure my signature and within a few days I had left the Spiders for pastures new. It was an opportunity to play alongside better players and enhance my career. The move was only tinged with a hint of disappointment that I would miss playing against the famous Toffees.
After my first training session at the Sons, I was heading home when I received a call from a local reporter to discuss my new club. After a short conversation he mentioned that I would be glad I hadn’t been playing for Queens Park that night as they had been royally humped by Everton and to make matters worse, a 16-year old had scored a hat-trick. I remember thinking, “wow I am delighted I wasn’t involved in that debacle.”
Imagine getting destroyed by someone not even old enough to drive. I could just picture getting in the car with my Dad after a schoolboy had just ran rings round me. “You let him bully you. You need to be stronger than that, son, if you want to make a living out this game.”
I had a cold sweat thinking about it. A night like that is enough to destroy your self-confidence and self-belief in one go. It was fragile enough after my first season where I had been “old manned” by some lower league journeyman striker. The last thing I needed was someone old enough to still be reading the Beano giving me the run around.
Roll on four months and I am sitting at home watching Match of the Day and a just-turned-16 Wayne Rooney hit a last minute winner past David Seaman. Oh, so that was the “kid” that hit three past Queens Park in preseason. Now it didn’t look quite the embarrassment I thought at the time. His phenomenal winner against Arsenal was just the start. Over the coming months I watched this young boy run rampant over some of the best center backs in the world. He was awesome. Look back at any old clips on Youtube. He was a dynamo, tearing about the pitch, barging past defenders with his power and speed. I often try to imagine how I might have fared against him had I played that night all the way back in 2002. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have fared very well. While two years older than Rooney, I was still a boy. There was more meat on a butchers pencil, whereas Rooney was a mix of Mike Tyson and Linford Christie along with his supreme footballing ability. No doubt he would have thrown me around like a wet tracksuit. If he was doing it to experienced Premiership players, what chance would I have had? I am just glad that my confidence and ego didn’t have to take the bashing or the roasting from my Dad.
Rooney took English football by storm for the next decade and more, winning trophies and breaking records along the way. I managed to stay out of his way through my time in England, our paths never crossing until last year when Sheffield United were drawn to play at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup.
I have never been so happy with the FA Cup draw. My first love is Kilmarnock FC and I have a great affinity with Sheffield United after playing with them for many years but I am also an avid follower of Manchester United. Denis Law was my dad’s hero growing up, along with Bobby Charlton. As is usually the case, my dad regaled great stories about their past which made me a supporter as well. We have both made many trips to the Theatre of Dreams as fans, but this was going to be my first as a player.
I was desperate to face Rooney and the rest of the United first team. I wanted to test myself against the best they had to offer, not some second string. I might not have been ready for Rooney all those years ago, but now I felt I had the experience and nous to test myself, along with the fact that I had put on a few pounds and wouldn’t get blown away in the wind.
I was not kidding myself that this was Rooney in his pomp. As a United fan, I was well aware that he had dropped off from his previous standards, but he was still the countries’ leading goal scorer and an icon of the last decade. When the team sheets arrived on the day of the game, I was not disappointed. “Rooney 10” was on the team sheet and he was playing up front.
As always when up against players of such a high caliber, I decided to get right in their face from minute one. Bumping into them when the ball is nowhere to be seen just to let them know I’m there. I did this to Rooney and he turned round and asked me quite abruptly what I thought I was doing. Not to be put off, the next opportunity I did it again. Now it’s a common perception that Rooney plays his best when he’s angry. Well, if that really is true, I should have been worried as he started charging round like raging bull. As fate would have it, a ball got played in the channel and we both chased after it. I knew he was coming for me, but I not only managed to win the tackle, but come away with the ball and play a neat one-two round one of my heroes to cheers from the huge Blades traveling support. If Rooney wasn’t already seeing the red mist, he was now, but my confidence was sky high and I proceeded along with the rest of my teammates to blunt any attacking threat from Rooney for the next 89 minutes or so. While it might not have been the biggest game on Rooney’s fixture calendar, he still possessed an incredible will to win, but just couldn’t muster the same magic or threat that had been his trademark throughout his career. It confirmed my own suspicions that as an out -and-out striker for the biggest club in England, he was nearing the end. Nearing it, but not there just yet.
With the score tied in the 92nd minute and heading for a well-deserved replay, Dean Hammond upended Memphis Depay to concede a penalty. Rooney coolly stepped up and slotted it away in front of the Stretford End to ensure his name would be on the back pages the following day despite his insipid performance. The following week, he proceeded to score a double at St James’ Park on the Wednesday night and scored the winner at Anfield that Sunday after another below par performance. I suppose that’s what the greats do — they produce the goods when they are not at their best. They step up for the big moments when their team needs them. His all-around performances were far removed from the swashbuckling days we love to remember, but he could still find the back of the net.
Fast forward to the present, when on Saturday morning I settled down to watch Stoke v Manchester United. One of the perks of living in the States is getting access to watch all the Premiership matches, even those that kick off at 3pm back home. After losing an unfortunate opening goal to a deflection, United proceeded to pummel Stoke, creating chance after chance. With 25 minutes to go, their talisman for so many years was brought off the bench when Rooney replaced Mata in an attempt to rescue the match.
United continued to probe, but to no avail. For years, Rooney was the first name on the team sheet. The only time he may have been required from the bench would be if the understudies didn’t manage to get the job done during a game he was allowed to rest. Under Mourinho, he’s had to accept this role, though I struggle to think of a game he’s came off the bench and made a significant impact the way Rashford does with his exhilarating pace.
Saturday was no different and with only three minutes left to play and United heading to defeat, I Facetimed my Dad to dissect the game and primarily discuss another ineffective substitute appearance performance by Rooney. I was greeted by a huge grin, which threw me, as my Dad is more of a glass half empty person in the immediate aftermath of a Manchester United defeat.
“What about Rooney’s goal?,” my dad asked. Now I was really thrown out my stride, as I sat and watched the clock tick down with the score at 1-0. “He’s broken the record.” With games being beamed from the U.K., there is normally a slight delay, but in this case, there was around a two-minute lag. Just as I began to believe my Dad was telling the truth, I notice Rooney standing over a free kick on the corner of the box. The rest, they say, is history.
Over the past couple of years as a United fan, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Rooney has frustrated me. He’s been a shadow of his former self and playing against him confirmed my suspicions, but as I watched him whip in that world class free kick to break one of the most sought-after records in world football and then sprint to get the ball to try and get the winner, I realised why he truly is a United great.
No one could have begrudged him an exuberant celebration after scoring a last minute equaliser to break a 40-year old record, but that’s not Rooney. He’s a winner. Darren Fletcher said it best when he said, “most strikers are selfish but Rooney is selfless.” Never has a truer word been spoken. He’s broken these goal scoring records and still been a team man. If he was my teammate, I would run through a brick wall for him and I suspect that’s why so many of his ex-teammates have protected him in the media while he’s not been at his best. It’s exactly what I would do for someone that had put his body on the line for the team while still grabbing vital goals.
Left midfield, right midfield, center midfield he’s played everywhere. Even at his best, he did the graveyard shift to accommodate other luxury players. Did he like it? Probably not, but he did it for the good of the team. Not many superstars do that. I’ve played out of position and never batted an eye lid because I knew if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the team. Guys like Wayne Rooney didn’t need to worry about that, but still did it with no complaints.
So whether it’s as a United fan, England fan, opposition fan or as a fellow professional footballer, we should all recognise his fantastic achievements and how he embodies all the values that fans and players in our country love. I will be forever grateful I made my move to Dumbarton and missed out on the opportunity of playing against Everton. While I know for sure I wouldn’t have made a dent on a young Wayne Rooney’s confidence if I had matched up against him, I also know he could have severely damaged mine and who knows where my career would have gone.