UTD Unscripted: Meeting Young Rooney
“Be careful, that kid is super rapid.”
Jim Ryan, our coach at the time, was talking to all the defenders at half-time during our game against Everton at Old Trafford in 2002.
He was talking about this kid called Wayne Rooney. I didn’t know much about him, but I did know that he was the kid who had scored an amazing goal against Arsenal – and David Seaman – a couple of weeks earlier.
That goal told me enough. First, it’s a sign of precocity, a sign of class because it really was a perfect goal. Second, you know that he’s taken the decision to take on that shot, so it shows he is prepared to take a risk. Then, he’s taking the option of having a go himself instead of looking at the runs of others, so he’s brave, courageous, he believes in his ability and everything about that goal shows he’s much more advanced than any other 16-year-old around the world.
That goal was an announcement which said: Hey guys, I’m here. Be ready. I belong at this level.
He wasn’t the finished article, but this goal was telling everybody that he was ready for the Premier League, and that he wouldn’t be scared if he came on against us at Old Trafford.
Jim had scouted him a lot over the years, so he knew much more about him. When he gave us that warning, it meant something. So, when Rooney came on with around 20 minutes to go, I remembered that warning. He still took me by surprise the first time he ran at me!
About 10 minutes after he came on, he turned, went straight past me, straight past a couple of the other lads and had a shot which Fabien Barthez had to save. I was fast, but he’d gotten away. In that moment I was thinking: “Ohhh, Jim was right. The kid is super fast!”
You could see there and then that he had no fear at all. Whether it was Old Trafford or his back garden, it was the same stage to him. Straight away he showed us all his ability.
Obviously we played against Everton every season, so I faced Wayne a few times over the next couple of years and it was never easy. I think his biggest strength was when he came from the left-hand side, going across the field. Put yourself in the defender’s position there. I have to shuffle from my left and he’s pushing the ball with his right foot, and that’s a really difficult situation to be in with Wayne. You’d be late for the challenge or for the block because of his touch, his coordination, the tempo he was using to push the ball the extra yard and find the space to shoot or dribble one more time. That was something we saw from him on his first appearance at Old Trafford and it’s something he always had.
From day one, that was his biggest asset for me: his ability to read those positions, off-balance the defenders and find space to create himself a chance or an assist.
It wasn’t long before he was called up by England and he was part of their squad for Euro 2004, despite his age. France were drawn in the same group stage and we had a really tough opening game against England to start the campaign.
Beforehand, I warned Lilian Thuram about Wayne. Fabien warned him too. I think Lilian was maybe a little bit arrogant about the situation! England were already winning 1-0 when Wayne sped past him during the second half. I had to cover, I was late and I had to concede the penalty. Again, that speed, that directness had caused big problems. Fortunately for us, Fabien saved the penalty from Becks. Also fortunately, we had a guy named Zinedine who scored two late goals and we just about won the game.
Afterwards we were talking about him, about what he’d done to us. He had a little bit of a reputation before the game, so we weren’t completely taken by surprise, but at that time there wasn’t too much about videos; players weren’t looking at the opposition as much as now. Now everybody in our dressing room knew about him, everyone who had watched the game knew about him and by the end of the tournament, Wayne had been so good that the world really knew about him. He was just excellent.
So, when I heard we were signing him later that summer, I was super, super happy. It was the same feeling as when we signed Cristiano the year before. You know you are getting someone that’s going to stay there for a while and perform, bring what you need to win trophies, which is scoring goals and creating chances. I think we were all really excited to sign one of the best young prospects around.
For me, it meant an even harder test every day because I had to face him in training, but I loved that. I had always felt that it was better to face the likes of Wayne and Cristiano in training – before them it had been Ruud, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole, Teddy – because I was a competitor and I always wanted to test myself against the best. Not only was he fast and clever, he was strong too. So was I and physicality, as a defender, is an important part of the game, so I was always looking forward to the challenge of facing him.
He was great when he arrived, but he was always developing. He learnt a lot from the others, from Ole, Ruud, Louis, and like Cristiano he was a fast learner. He needed to bring consistency quickly into his game to be able to retain his place in the starting XI for United and England. He was, like the rest of us, a bad loser, and if you don’t want to lose then you always have to improve. He got that. He was always looking to improve his game.
When he first came he was injured because he’d broken his foot at Euro 2004, but already he was very close to the English boys and that was an easy adaptation for him. He’d gone straight into the England team and it was easy for him to create a bond with everybody. I think he found it easy to fit in with everyone. He had a big personality. He was still a teenager but you don’t expect him to take 10 years in one. It’s one of his strengths to not ask himself too many questions before games, just go and do his business. Just be natural. If you think too much, especially as a striker, you can have a dip in form – missing shots in one game, then you can carry it into the next game. Wayne is not this type of guy. He just played naturally.
I think we saw that during his debut. It wasn’t too bad, was it?
He smashed in two brilliant goals in the first half, the kind of goal we knew he could score, but his third, the free-kick, was something different. That surprised me because I didn’t expect him to have the finesse to score that goal. He’d shown us his power so many times already, but this was close to the goal, so he had to be delicate. I hadn’t seen him practicing that before much, so it was like: Okay, wow, he’s got that as well!
He really did have it all. I spent four seasons with him at United and having him as a team-mate was exceptional. He was a real team player. He’s not selfish in any way at all. Some strikers just want to score the goals all the time, but Wayne was the opposite. You would sometimes say to him that he had to be more selfish. Then the other elements of his game: come short or go long, he could give you different options when you had the ball in defence. That was a pleasure for us as defenders because he was always, always making himself available for you.
He went on to have an amazing career at United and he was always developing. After I left and joined Arsenal, I came up against him when he was probably at his peak. His decision-making, his maturity were both good when he first arrived at United, but by this stage they were so good that it was difficult to stop him. Really, really difficult. He got even better at playing with the others, his understanding with Cristiano and Carlos Tevez got better and he became an even bigger team player. It didn’t seem to bother him if the manager asked him to play on the left wing, he just got on with it and did a great job.
When I sit down and think about the players I played with during my career, for my clubs and my country, it’s ridiculous. Zidane, Ronaldo, Cristiano, Baggio, Henry, Trezeguet, Blanc, Zanetti, Simeone, Keane, Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, and that’s just a few of them. It’s a joke, but no question at all, when I sit down and think about the best of them, Wayne is among them.
That’s not just because of his ability, but also because I know what it takes to play that long for United, the work behind the scenes that people don’t see and can’t even imagine. It might seem like the weekend comes, you put on your kit and do your magic, but no. He played for United for well over a decade and scored more goals for the club than anybody else. During that time, putting in all his effort for the club and the team, going up and down the field, defending like he did from the front, playing injured many times, giving his all for United. He was a true Red.