Growing up a sports fanatic in America in the ‘90’s and early 2000’s was a dream come true. Not only did we have access to some of the greatest sporting venues, but online and televised sporting events were increasing in popularity as well. Sports became an important part of American culture during this time. Any iconic sports moment or player that you can think of: Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Sammy Sosa; you name it, I witnessed it. Whether I was watching a game or playing the latest sport-related video game, every single day of my life involved sports. This sounds like every kid’s dream, doesn’t it?
While there was more than enough sports coverage, America was missing out on the sport I loved most; soccer. Even though soccer was one of the most popular sports worldwide, the popularity never made its way to America. With the lack of football coverage, most of my knowledge about the players and teams came from playing FIFA. Of course my knowledge included household names like Pele, Maradona, and Ronaldo Nazario, and while I wanted to know more, my opportunities to learn about soccer in America were limited.
Around 2004, more American media outlets started to cover the Premier League. Even with the six hour time difference, if a game was on, my face was glued to the TV screen. From the beginning of my Premier League watching experience, one player stood out to me – Wayne Rooney.
Looking back, it’s almost comical to think about the immense amount of talent I witnessed in Manchester United but didn’t recognize due to all my attention being directed at one player. As football clips started to become a normal part of highlight reels, I noticed one player that always made an appearance: Rooney. The level of greatness being witnessed by the rest of the team was beyond me because my eyes were glued to the player I connected with the most. The more coverage Rooney was earning, the more I wanted to watch him. While my love for the club grew over time, it’s safe to say my support was not initially for Manchester United.
I was a Wayne Rooney fan.
Even as one of the youngest players on the pitch each week, Rooney was one of the best. Of course he oozed natural talent, but he wasn’t alone. There have been countless other players that have shown the same level of ability. Yet, over the years, few have matched the greatness and accomplishments of Rooney. So, what set him apart?
Wayne Rooney displayed a work rate and attitude on the pitch that was unmatched. Early on in his career, he proved his superstar level ability, earned many accolades and posted rarely matched statistics. His mindset always seemed to revolve around one main goal: silverware. This ambition wasn’t fuelled by his individual success. Silverware would be earned by the team, for the team.
Rooney had a desire to win and was willing to do almost anything to earn that silverware. He played in every attacking position on the pitch with the same effort and enthusiasm as he did while leading the line. Whether his teammates were world-class players or fresh from the academy, Rooney stepped up and played whatever role was needed for the betterment team. No matter where he was or who he was playing with, you always knew what you would be getting from Wayne Rooney; commitment. A man willing to do whatever his team needed to get a victory. More often than not, he made sure that happened.
Winning was everything to this man. In 2004 he left his beloved boyhood club, Everton, to join Manchester United in the pursuit for silverware. Earning an opportunity to join the biggest club in England, a club that was already competing for silverware, was a chance Rooney could not turn down.
In 2010 at 24 years of age, coming into his prime, Wayne Rooney was willing to walk away from United. He was quoted saying “I met with David Gill [United’s chief executive] last week and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad. I then told him that I would not be signing a new contract.”
He continued on saying, “For me it's all about winning trophies – as the club has always done under Sir Alex.”
The club’s ambitions were no longer in alignment with Wayne Rooney’s. Manchester United sold Cristiano Ronaldo for a then world-record fee of £80m. Carlos Tevez joined Manchester City. World-class players were replaced with Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen, and Gabriel Obertan. With all due respect to these players, I think many United supporters shared the same concerns as Rooney – where was the ambition to stay at the top of English Football?
United, albeit mostly Sir Alex Ferguson, was able to convince Rooney that the club would be able to continue to compete for silverware. And while that did end up being the case, in hindsight many United supporters can understand where our talisman’s concerns were coming from.
Wayne Rooney was and is a very ambitious man. Sir Alex was as well. Both saw the issues with the club’s ownership, particularly when it came to the lack of desire to actually be the best.
At this point in Rooney’s career, he had already won the Premier League three times in a row, the English League Cup three times, the English Super Cup once, the Champions League once, the Club World Cup once, was awarded the Young Player of the Year twice, and was the youngest goal-scorer in Premier League history. 'Wazza' had established a winning reputation and it was clear he wanted that to continue.
With Rooney in the side United went on to win two more league titles with Sir Alex in the 2010-2011 season and again in the 2012-2013 season. Yet, Manchester United was bringing home less silverware and the club’s leadership wasn’t showing any signs of addressing the decline in success.
Like he always had, Wayne Rooney did whatever he needed in order to help his teams compete to the best of their ability. He did his best to continue leading the line until his legs simply couldn’t support the work-rate he once had. His competitive nature allowed him to adapt and play in deeper roles, providing much needed leadership and quality on the pitch.
After Sir Alex’s departure, Rooney was able to captain some very underwhelming United teams to silverware in the English League Cup, FA Cup, Community Shield and finally the Europa League.
After his time at Manchester United had come to an end, Rooney moved back to his boyhood club, Everton. Once again, he played in whatever role he was asked, often in a deeper role, and was still able to reach double figure goals. After a year back with the Merseyside club, he moved to a very underwhelming side in the MLS, D.C. United.
His impact was instant, both in terms of his goals and assists, which he accumulated 18 in just 20 games, but also in the leadership he brought to a side that was arguably the worst in the league.
One assist in particular while at D.C. United epitomizes his playstyle. In the sixth and final minute of stoppage time, the Washington D.C based side won a corner and set everyone forward in an attempt to win the game. The opposition wins the ball and are breaking towards a wide open goal, but one player decides to not give up on the play - and I don't think I need to even specify who.
In typically fashion, Rooney lays a game-saving crunching tackle to win the ball back, then drives forward before launching a 40 yard ball into the opposition box, which gets headed home for the game-winning goal. It was vintage from the veteran.
With Rooney in the side, at least the team was still competitive and gave the fans something to be excited about.
Rooney finished up his playing career in the Championship, where he transitioned from a player to a player-coach and then stayed on at Derby County as manager. Rooney even stayed with the club even as it entered administration and faced a 21-point deduction. Without said penalty, Derby County would have comfortably remained in The Championship under his leadership.
Rooney has spoken about his future goals, mentioning that one day he would love to take charge of his former sides, Everton or Manchester United, but also acknowledges these are positions he must earn on merit given by what he has shown on the side-lines.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what the future holds, I for one will not be doubting what he can achieve. Rooney’s career has been defined by hard work, determination, and a constant desire to succeed. I expect those same principles to be demonstrated in his pursuit of the goals he laid out for himself.
Wherever he’s gone, he’s been universally loved and appreciated by the supporters. Wayne Rooney was a special player and has the promise to develop into a special manager. Whatever happens in the future, one thing will always remain true – Wayne Rooney is one of a kind.