Red cards, overhead kicks, abusive fans. It’s been an emotional 10 years in the Premier League for Wayne Rooney. But, as ShortList’s Leo Moynihan learns, you’ll never see him blubbing about it
On Saturday 19 October, 2002 a schoolboy – who despite his callow years was supremely confident and free of fear – plucked the ball effortlessly out of the air, looked up and curled a delicious shot past the then-England goalkeeper. The crowd went berserk and the commentator told us all to “Remember the name…Wayne Rooney”.
A decade on, let’s do just that.
Let’s remember the goals; more than 200 at the last count. Let’s remember the medals, too; four Premier League titles and a Champions League gong among them. There are critics who will argue that this isn’t enough. They want more. They needn’t worry, though. So does he.
Describe the high a 16-year-old experiences after a goal like yours against Arsenal back in 2002.
I can’t. I knew that my first goal wasn’t far off – I had a lot of confidence even at that age – but to do it like that, with that style, was incredible. It was great that it also ended a very good Arsenal team’s 30-game unbeaten streak. The place erupted and it’s all a bit of a blur from there.
What does a young teenager do to celebrate a moment like that?
I went home and played football with my mates. That’s all we did. I got home, and we had a kick-around by our house. My mates were no different with me, it was just back to doing what we did most nights.
Before breaking into the Everton team, what was your most memorable game as a fan?
The one that stands out to me as a kid is the 1995 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Everton played Manchester United, who by then were the biggest and best team in the country. I was in the youth team and the club took us all down with the team on the coach. What a day out. Everton won 1-0. That was a good journey home. I was also an Everton mascot at Anfield in 1996 for a Merseyside derby. Everton won that one too, 2-1. To walk out with the players that I so admired at age 10 was incredible.
Two years after that goal against Arsenal, you arrived at Manchester United, aged 18. How hard was that?
It was daunting joining such a massive club with such good players and a big character as a manager. But I was confident. As nervous as I was, I was also excited and confident that I could fit in. I had an injury when I arrived and so I had to wait a bit to get out there but when I started, it just felt right. I was playing for a massive, massive team, fighting for trophies – the Premier League and the Champions League – and that for me was everything.
How about Sir Alex Ferguson? How inspiring is he?
You’ll listen to him give a team talk and at the time, you’ll think, “Why’s he saying this?” Then it hits you and you’re ready to go. The boss’s words always hark back to hard work. People win things in football, in business, in life because they work hard and despite all the talent in the dressing room he makes us remember that we must put the hours in. The quality is there. We’re Manchester United – of course it is. But what wins us things is effort.
Do you remember your first ‘hairdryer’ from him?
[Grimaces] I can’t. I’ve been on the end of so many, they all roll into one.
How do you handle it? Is it best to look at the floor like you’re at school?
No, everyone’s different. Sometimes you talk back to him and say what you feel. He’s the boss, though, so you listen of course, and he’s usually making a valid point.
Is there a cuddly side to his character?
He’s very different from the man the public see. The football man is hard, he’s firm, he gets his point across and he wants to win. When we’re travelling or staying in hotels, though, he’s up for a laugh with the players. He works hard and is serious, but away from the game he’s very bubbly.
What has been your biggest Premier League high?
That Arsenal goal was huge, but getting my hands on that first Premier League medal in 2007 was special.
And what about lows?
Last season at Sunderland. Walking off thinking, hoping, that maybe we’d won it, then being told that we hadn’t, was hard. It was a horrible feeling. A disaster for everyone involved.
You’ve mentioned the Arsenal goal, but do you have another favourite from the Premier League?
I love the overhead kick against City in 2011. That’s my favourite.
Some say that it came off your shin…
[Laughs] It’s a harder skill to do it with your shin than it is with your boot. To do that against City was special. I scored a good volley against Newcastle for United too – those two and the Arsenal goal are my favourites.
You’ve said that scoring a goal is such a rush that you sometimes lose your head completely. How can you best describe that feeling?
It’s hard to. You can be playing a big game, a high-profile game and it’s tight. Then you score and something takes over. You don’t know what you’re doing. I would never plan a celebration, though. That’s not my style so you do see yourself later on the TV and you wonder, “What was I thinking?” Not that I would change and try to plan something.
You’ve played with plenty of great strikers. Who’s been your favourite?
That’s so hard. There are so many… [thinks hard] I’m going to say Louis Saha. He’s a fantastic player; a real handful for anyone and I just really enjoyed playing off him. He was so lively and made great runs in behind. Always making space for others.
What about a dream strike partner?
Am I allowed to say Maradona?
Maradona then. Duncan Ferguson was my hero and now he’s a great mate of mine. While I played a bit with him, I would have liked to have played some more.
What about an opponent? Is there a defender who has given you the most problems?
John Terry. He’s the hardest I’ve faced. He’s big, good in the air and he’s powerful, but he’s also a very intelligent footballer who reads the game so well. You come off feeling like you’ve been in a real game.
Apart from Old Trafford, do you have a favourite Premier League ground?
I like White Hart Lane. It’s a tight stadium and there’s always a good atmosphere. Oh, and I have scored quite a few goals there, which helps.
You have many years of big-game experience, but do you still get nervous? What has been your most nerve-wracking moment?
We had a penalty at Blackburn in 2011. It was late in the game and we were losing. If I missed it, the title was on the line. That was hard. I had to compose myself, but you know how much is at stake. Score and the title is in the bag. Miss and it’s not. I was scared, but thankfully it went in.
You take your fair share of stick from fans. Does it hurt to hear boos at Everton who, when it comes down to it, are your team? [It’s reported that Rooney wanted to play for Everton in Tony Hibbert’s testimonial this year.]
It’s part of football. I was at Everton from the age of nine to 18, but I know what it’s like to be a fan and I’ve done it myself. I understand it and live with it. It’s easy to handle and I get on with things.
Is that why you find it easier than most to listen to radio phone-ins and watch Sky Sports News?
Journalists, ex-players, fans: they will speak about you whether it’s good or bad. You try not to take too much notice. I like listening though, it’s people’s opinions and they are entitled to them. The people I take notice of are the coaching staff and my family. They talk about me and I listen.
Do you see yourself playing on into your late-thirties like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs?
Yeah, of course. I want to play as long as I can and to have shared a dressing room with the likes of Giggsy and Paul Scholes is inspiration to do just that. At least another 10 years would be great.
Giggs took up yoga to prolong his playing career. Fancy that?
I’m not sure about yoga, but to be fair, we all have different regimes and a fantastic sports science team at United, so I’m confident I can keep going almost as long as both of them.
Your manager is keen on players reinventing themselves and many see you eventually reverting back to midfield. Does that idea excite you?
I can see myself one day moving back into midfield – I can do it – but I’m not ready yet. I’m a centre-forward and I score goals.
And you’ve worked so hard on your finishing…
Very hard – and I feel I have plenty of goals left in me. I’ll play there if I have to and I have done so at United, but goals are still my main aim and the biggest part of my game.
Does breaking goal-scoring records for England and Manchester United drive you?
Sir Bobby Charlton holds both so that’s a great challenge. The guy is a legend and is such a presence around the club. If I could break his record as Manchester United’s top goalscorer and maybe even England’s… wow! That is such a great incentive.
You recently captained England again. How did that feel?
To do it at Wembley was massive to me. I dreamed of just playing at the stadium as a kid, let alone captaining my country there. To lead the team out was a great honour and something I’m extremely proud of.
You’ve said that you pray before games. Would you say you are a religious man?
I’m not overly religious, but that is something I like to do. I pray for my family, for myself and I pray for the good health of everyone about to take part in the game.
You have publicly promised yourself that you will never cry on a football pitch. Why?
It’s just not me. I have lost big games, massive games but I am not going to stand on the pitch crying my eyes out in front of millions of people. Same thing if we win. It’s just not the kind of thing that you will ever see me do.
Ten years on, how do you think you are perceived by the average man on the street?
I don’t know. I know how I perceive myself, though. I know I work hard, give everything on a football pitch, and I try to score goals, to create goals. How do others perceive me? I couldn’t say. I haven’t given it much thought.
Wayne Rooney: My Decade In The Premier League is out now (HarperCollins)
Photography: David Venni / PA