Wayne Rooney’s life changed forever on October 19, 2002.
Everton drew 1-1 with Premier League champions Arsenal before going 30 games unbeaten in the English top flight.
As play got underway in the 90th minute, the teenage striker, who had been brought on by coach David Moyes, controlled a pass from team-mate Thomas Gravesen, picking up a couple of touches and unleashing a shot that beat the Arsenal and England goalkeeper David Seaman to win the game and spread the word about his talents throughout the football world. At the time, Rooney was just five days away from signing a professional contract on his 17th birthday.
“Remember the name! Wayne Rooney!” yelled commentator Clive Tyldesley, which proved as accurate as Rooney’s shot.
Rooney won five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown with Manchester United, becoming the club’s record goalscorer, an accolade he also held for the England side until Harry Kane overtook his tally in the final Euro 2024 qualifying game against Italy.
Fast forward to 2023 and the life of 37-year-old Rooney, who is DC United’s head coach, has come to a close. He will take charge of the MLS All-Stars squad against Arsenal this July in his current hometown of Washington DC.
“Actually, I was frustrated because I was on the bench in this game. I wanted to start the game and I didn’t,” Rooney, who represented Everton on both sides in a great 13-year career at Manchester United, recently told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell.
“It felt a little strange at first but it was an incredible feeling to score for your youth club and your first Premier League goal but also with the winning goal against Arsenal…the best team in the country at the time. It was crazy but it’s certainly one of my highlights and best moments and a goal I’ll never forget.”
Rooney played for four-time MLS Cup winners DC United in 2018/19 – perhaps as impressive as his biggest goals in the Premier League with a game-saving tackle and a game-winning assist within around 20 seconds against Orlando City.
Life on the touchline began in 2020 in a dual role as player-coach for lower-league English club Derby County, morphing into a permanent managerial role before returning to Washington DC last year.
By the time Arsenal arrive in the US, Mikel Arteta’s side could have secured their first Premier League title since 2004.
“I played for both sides in the All-Star game, for Manchester United a few years ago and then for the All-Stars against Atletico Madrid,” notes Rooney.
“And obviously being Arsenal it makes me a little bit more excited because it’s a challenge. It’s going to be a tough game, but a game where we’ll try to go and win.”
Despite living thousands of miles away, Rooney remains an avid Premier League supporter and is enjoying the title race from afar, not least in view of Manchester City’s star striker Erling Haaland, who has already scored 42 goals in his debut season in England.
Rooney says the 22-year-old Norwegian phenomenon is ‘incredible…. a player I like to see…he’s going to break some records, that’s for sure.”
Rooney, however, feels the current Premier League leaders may fall short in their bid to wrest the title from City, although he admits: “I hope Arsenal win it.”
“I think City will make them do it,” Rooney concedes. “It will be exciting. I think because Arsenal haven’t been in that position for a long time and there can be a lot of pressure to deal with that.
“Once you start getting into the last 10 games of the season, that’s when the real pressure starts. And so I’m really excited to see if they can keep up what they’ve been doing all season.”
Rooney is even more explicit about Manchester United.
Since Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager in 2013, a decade in the relative wilderness that is still without a championship has arguably ended thanks to the appointment of Dutchman Erik ten Hag, who won a silver in his first season at Old Trafford – the League Cup – and likely qualify for the Champions League.
A serious challenge for the Premier League title would come as no surprise next season and Rooney is not the first to link Ten Hag’s determination in dealing with Cristiano Ronaldo to a surge in results.
“I suppose he got what he wanted,” Rooney says of the way the Portuguese superstar left Manchester United by mutual consent last November, just a week after he detailed his frustrations at the club in an explosive TV interview had.
“It was important for Manchester United to get away from that as quickly as possible and really get back to focus on the group of players who were there and wanted to be there. And I think this is where Ten Hag did a really good job of rebalancing the players and putting them in a position where obviously they’re comfortable in the top four and they’re winning too [League] Cup.”
But has this in any way diminished Ronaldo’s status as a legend at the club?
“No, I think what he’s done for Manchester United is great,” Rooney replies. “And he’s won Premier League titles, won the Champions League, scored a lot of goals.
“So I think certainly for the fans and certainly for the players, especially his former team-mates who played with him from my days, we will never forget what he did for Manchester United. Because in my eyes he will always be a club legend and of course it’s a shame how it turned out this time. But I don’t think that diminishes any of his legacy at the club.”
Legends come and go and while United’s main forward – Marcus Rashford – is not yet in the same megastar class as Rooney or Ronaldo, the 25-year-old’s resurgence this season has been impressive for his club.
And Rooney cheers on Rashford, who has scored 120 goals to break his record of 253 for the Red Devils.
“I think we all knew about Marcus even before he was in the first team as he came through the academy. He’s a top player and has slacked off a bit, especially in the last 18 months. And again, I think Ten Hag came in and really simplified it for him,” says Rooney.
“I’m not a player who sits on records and hopes nobody breaks them. I hope he does and the reasons why [with] he’s a manchester boy coming through the academy.
“I think it’s a great story and it means he’s been very successful with the club and he’s been there a long time and scored a lot of goals when he does. So I hope he does. I think he certainly has the ability and skills to do so. I’m sure, or I hope, that I’ll be able to pass that mantle on to him at some point in the years to come.”