On 19 October 2002, Everton coach David Moyes substituted Tomasz Radzinski for 16-year-old striker Wayne Rooney against an Arsenal team who were on a 30-match unbeaten run.
With the clock running out and the match heading towards a draw, Thomas Gravesen looped the ball forward to see it intricately controlled by the young striker who then turned and let loose a thunderbolt beyond a hapless David Seaman.
With Goodison Park in a frenzy of raucous celebrations, Wayne Rooney had announced himself to the Premiership and to the world. And since then, he has never looked back.
He was a fearless player. A player who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United. A player who could zip past defenders and produce the odd trick. He would love taking on opponents and bamboozle goalkeepers from long range.
But now, we see a shadow. We don’t see the ‘White Pele’ anymore. Instead we see a player who is trying to play the creator; releasing fellow strikers rather than scoring himself and tracking back to continuously help United’s beleaguered defence. It has also reduced the number of times he is in the box waiting to hammer in a cross (remember the run of nine consecutive headed goals in 2009-10?).
But inside, he’s always been a goalscorer and when he has been used as one, he has given fantastic returns (35 goals last term and 34 in 2009-10).
Over the years, Rooney has played at various positions for Manchester United. His versatility is why he is compared to legends like Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes and Eric Cantona — players who could do a bit of everything. He had the aggression of Roy Keane (now quelled considerably), the nimble feet of Gazza and the ability to do the unthinkable, like Cantona.
But is this versatility his real enemy? Is it stopping him from becoming one of the best ‘strikers’ in Europe?
While this is something that makes him invaluable, even indispensable to the Red Devils, it has somehow made his goal-scoring form very stop-start.
In the last few seasons, he has had to play in different positions. This was either to accommodate teammates like Cristiano Ronaldo or more recently Robin van Persie or to fill the creative players’ void at Manchester United.
But on a personal level, his retreated role has affected his scoring abilities. This season he has only scored three goals in 14 games that includes a penalty. A striker is known by the number of goals he scores, and this is a poor return.
Last season, which was arguably his best so far, he had already racked up 12 goals at this point while playing as an out and out striker. He had a total of only 10 assists all season, whereas this season he has already gone past that tally — a stat which clearly shows that while his creativity has come to the fore, his goal-scoring form has taken a hit. The number of minutes per goal too has increased from 110 to 164 minutes this season.
Before the Reading game, Alex Ferguson also spoke about this lack of goals: “I’m happy with the playmaking part of his game and he can contribute to the team’s success, fine, but we would rather he scored more, obviously.”
What has also not helped Rooney’s case is Shinji Kagawa’s injury and the presence of poachers like Javier Hernandez and Van Persie in the team. Kagawa was the man who was supposed to plug the creative gap in United’s midfield, but a bad knee means he has been out of action for a long time. Tom Cleverley is a great prospect, but he still isn’t as good as Rooney in the hole.
As Rooney reaches his 30s, he may still be able to accept this role on a more regular basis. But for now, I would love for Ferguson to let him do what he does best — play him upfront as a striker who scores goals at will.
Somewhere hidden in this attacking midfielder’s role, is a much more lethal Rooney and that side of his game is sorely being missed this season.
Hopefully, it won’t be lost forever.