OLIVER HOLT: Wayne Rooney has always been that wonderkid who starred for England at Euro 2004… he was like our very own Pele carrying the hopes of a nation but as he hangs up his boots, now we can set him free
- Wayne Rooney retired from his playing career this week to manage Derby
- The striker ended his career as Manchester United and England’s record scorer
- Rooney broke onto the international scene at the Euro 2004 tournament
- For some of us, Rooney has always been that young teenager at Portugal in 2004
Wayne Rooney played on for nearly 17 years after the 2004 European Championship but for many of us, despite everything he achieved in his brilliant career, all the records for Manchester United and for England, all the trophies and all the landmarks, he will always be preserved there in those balmy evenings at the Estadio da Luz amid the brief flowering of a nation’s hopes and dreams.
When Rooney announced his retirement as a player on Friday, the news transported some of us straight back to that golden summer in Portugal, walking through the pines that ringed the Estadio Nacional outside Lisbon to watch Rooney train in the morning sunshine, believing for the first and last time in the lives of the post-1966 generation that England were going to win a major trophy.
For him, Friday’s announcement marks the beginning of a new career as a manager and it is both his gift and his curse that those fleeting few weeks by the Atlantic Ocean are what many of us will always remember him for most.
Wayne Rooney retired from his playing career this week to become Derby County manager
The striker (left) ended his career as Manchester United and England’s record goalscorer
In those weeks, when his talent exploded on the world stage, it felt for the first time since 1966 as though England were on the brink of new glories and fresh triumphs.
Assessments of football talent are subjective, of course, but for natural ability, it is hard to look beyond Rooney and Paul Gascoigne as the best this country has produced in the last 50 years as we chased the ghosts of the Boys of 66.
Perhaps both might have achieved more but it is better to be thankful they achieved as much as they did.
It was intoxicating to follow England at Euro 2004, to drive along the coast from the little resort of Cascais, not far from where England were staying, to the group games in Lisbon and Coimbra and to feel that this was England’s time.
England supporters have not felt a sense of possibility like that either before or since. There have been isolated moments of hope like the 4-1 victory over the Netherlands at Euro 96, the semi-final against Germany at the same tournament and the World Cup semi-finals of 1990 and 2018 but we never believed we were the best team then.
Rooney (back row, third right) was part of the ‘Golden Generation’ England squad fans loved
None of them were quite like 2004. And that was because of Rooney.
In 2004, it felt fleetingly as if England had the best player in the world and that nobody could stop him. It felt then as if anything was possible, as if we had found our own Pele.
It was a new feeling for our generation at the time, a feeling of momentum and excitement, a realisation of what it was like to have a player with the X-factor, a man who made the world stop when he played.
Rooney was still a kid then. He was 18. He had no fear. He knew nothing of what could go wrong in a life or a career. He knew nothing of injuries or dips in form or the pressure to live up to expectations or scrutiny or the occasions when your own fans boo you.
He was a man-child who knew instinctively that he could express himself like few others when he had the ball.
He was marked out as a prodigy from the moment he took the ball down out of the sky against Arsenal at Goodison Park in October 2002 and curled a shot around Sol Campbell, over David Seaman and in off the underside of the crossbar to give Everton a 1-0 victory over a side that would be invincible the following season.
The forward announced himself on the global stage with his 2002 Everton goal against Arsenal
Rooney’s (right) major tournament debut saw him terrorise France defenders at Euro 2004
He was 16 when that happened. ‘Remember the name,’ Clive Tyldesley said on commentary.
Even the established England players saw him as a wunderkind. Even the Golden Generation knew he was something special.
Before the crucial qualifier against Turkey in April 2003, there were reports of players being open-mouthed at his audacity and brilliance in training. They urged Sven Goran Eriksson to play him from the start. Which he did.
In Portugal, he took the tournament by storm. He terrorised a France defence that included players of the calibre of William Gallas and Lilian Thuram and ran at them as if they were kids on the playground at his school in Croxteth. They had no answer. He ran more than half the length of the pitch to win the late penalty that should have sealed victory for England.
It was saved and England contrived a way to lose but Rooney duly scored two in the next game against Switzerland and two more against Croatia. Perhaps for some the hubbub of that tournament is fading in the memory now but not for me and not for most of the England fans who were there.
It felt like a new king had arrived. All that remained was for him to be crowned.
And then it all disappeared in the quarter-final against Portugal. The injury happened away to the right of the press box at the Estadio da Luz, on the right side of the penalty area as Rooney attacked. When Rooney went down, clearly in pain, in the 27th minute and limped off with England 1-0 up, everyone knew the dream had died.
Rooney (right) went on to suffer a tournament-ending injury in the quarter-finals that year
Rooney went on to achieve greatness in his career but he has always been that kid in Portugal
That night was up there with England’s defeat by West Germany in Leon in 1970 as the country’s greatest football disappointments.
Both times, the side had what it took to win the tournament. But now we knew even if Eriksson’s team got through — and it was a good team — without Rooney, it would be shorn of the component that made it special.
So if there is some lingering disappointment about what might have been, it is not meant to denigrate in any way the greatness that Rooney built for himself. It is just a lament for the glory that was snatched away when he was still a boy and which never came his way — or ours — again.
The truth is that, for some of us, Rooney has always been that kid in Portugal in 2004. We wanted him to be impervious to the years. We wanted him to take us back to those fleeting moments when we felt as if we were kings.
Despite everything he won, we always tried to imprison him in the form of that boy we had watched in Lisbon. Now, at last, we can let him go.
DITCH THE HUGS… JUST FOR A WHILE
It would be pointless taking all the joy out of football by becoming too prescriptive about how players should celebrate a goal during the pandemic.
The game is supposed to be providing us with escapism, after all, not another reminder of our shadow lives. But maybe there is a middle ground somewhere.
The rest of us have been asked to moderate our behavioural norms until this crisis abates. It should not be beyond footballers to do the same.
So revert to choreographed celebrations, perhaps. Steer clear of the group hugs. Just for a few weeks.
The big idea, surely, is that we are all in this together. Once football veers too far away from that, it will lose public support.
Premier League players have been told to stop celebrating goals together over Covid-19 fears
ANOTHER PROUD NIGHT FOR FOOTBALL
I am aware that watching football live is even more of a privilege than ever and that made me appreciate being at Stockport County’s FA Cup third-round tie with West Ham last Monday more keenly than I might once have done.
Stockport did themselves proud, falling only to an 83rd-minute West Ham winner, but the Premier League team impressed me just as much.
It was a filthy night and they had everything to lose against a team from the fifth tier but West Ham’s star players did not fold.
They played like giants and when the game was over, they showed the Stockport players the same respect off the pitch as they had shown them on it.
Football has done much it can be proud of during the pandemic and last Monday night at Edgeley Park felt like another example of sport doing its job in difficult times.
Stockport took on West Ham in the FA Cup last week in another proud night for football
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