Sometimes there’s a moment in football that you know will be immortalised in history the second in happens. A moment that changes a player’s life in an instant, skewing it onto a completely new path.
One of those moments occurred 16 years ago today, when a teenage boy from Croxteth downed the Premier League champions and sent Goodison into raptures.
Wayne Rooney was a phenomenon. He may only have been 16-years-old but he had the body of a middleweight boxer. Most youngsters have a look of terror when they are plunged into the men’s game at such a tender age but look into the whites of Rooney’s eyes and all your saw was a bullish enthusiasm, bordering on arrogance, that scared the life out of even the most experienced defenders.
Everton had known they were onto something special with Rooney for several years and had faced an increasingly difficult battle to keep his immense ability a secret. It’s been said Walter Smith lamented not being able to call on Rooney’s precocious talent before he was sacked in March 2002.
He was head and shoulders above the rest of his peers during Everton’s run to the FA Youth Cup final the previous season, the highlight being a thunderous 35 yard goal in the semi-final against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in April. He was still a schoolboy when he was named among the substitutes by David Moyes for a trip to Southampton later that month. He didn’t make it onto the pitch at St Mary’s, but he didn’t have to wait much longer.
Moyes was brave enough to hand him a start against Tottenham on the opening day of the 2002-03 season. There was a renewed sense of optimism at Goodison that day, a feeling of purpose and direction after several years in the doldrums.
A lot of that excitement surrounded Rooney. The secret was well and truly out now amongst Toffees fans and there was a buzz of anticipation whenever he touched the ball.
Rooney didn’t score that day, but he didn’t look out of place either. It was so easy to forget how young he actually was (and a touch depressing when I remember what I was doing when I was 16).
Moyes did his best to protect Rooney in those opening few weeks, regularly keeping him among the substitutes.
Looking back now it must have been a tremendous challenge for Moyes, then a young, inexperienced manager, to have a potential superstar land in your lap out of nowhere. But the Scot could only do so much to hold Rooney back; he was a once in a generation player and wasn’t to be denied.
There aren’t many players who generate such excitement the moment they get the ball, the crowd rising in anticipation at what is to follow. Don’t forget in recent seasons Everton’s most creative players were Niclas Alexandersson, Idan Tal and a washed-up Paul Gascoigne. It was little wonder there was such a buzz around this latest teenage sensation.
Rooney scored his first goals for the club in a League Cup tie at Wrexham, becoming the club’s youngest goalscorer in the process. That caused nothing more than a minor ripple in the wider football world, but three weeks later, he’d go global.
It’s sometimes forgotten that Arsenal arrived on Merseyside a formidable force on the back of eight successive victories. They were unbeaten in 30 Premier League matches and hadn’t lost in any competition since March. So when Freddie Ljungberg gave them the lead early on the writing appeared to be on the wall.
But this new exuberant Everton were a growing force under Moyes and they equalised 15 minutes later. After Lee Carsley’s shot smacked against the post Tomasz Radzinski showed neat close control before sending a fizzing effort beyond David Seaman. It was a fine goal that will unfortunately always be overshadowed by what was to follow.
Everton were more than holding their own, but Arsenal began to flex their muscles in the final third of the match. Arsene Wenger was able to bring on Sylvain Wiltord, who scored the winner when the two teams met the previous February, and the Frenchman very nearly did so again only to see his effort hit the post.
Everton were beginning to hang on, a point would have been a tremendous result anyway, but in the 80th minute on came Rooney.
Such was the buzz surrounding the teenager the crowd was lifted by his presence and that appeared to transmit to the players, giving them an extra boost at the crucial time.
As the clock ticked towards 90 minutes, Thomas Gravesen hooked a hopeful high ball forward. Rooney’s control was instant, allowing him to turn, take another touch and move forward.
The Arsenal defence appeared to back-off en-mass, perhaps more concerned with Rooney’s advancing team-mates. That mistake proved fatal as Rooney wrapped his foot around the ball and bent an unerring effort beyond the despairing dive of David Seaman.
There were so many things that made this goal great; Rooney’s age, the fact it was the winner, the fact it was in the 90th minute, the fact it went in off the bar (always looks better). And what topped it off was the genius piece of commentary by Clive Tyldesley.
“Remember the name, Wayne Rooney!”.
Whether Tyldesley had planned such a phase I don’t know, but it was the perfect piece of oratory for the moment and truly signalled that a star had been born.
It was a wonderful moment that left the creaking stands of the Old Lady shaking with euphoria. Whenever we do move away from Goodison Park this is likely to be up there with one of its most thrilling moments, certainly in the Premier League era.
What made it all the more remarkable was that Rooney very nearly repeated the trick moments later with an impudent chip that landed on the roof of the net. He was absolutely fearless and no respecter of reputation.
Rooney was still earning £80 a week when he scored that goal but the following week, on his 17th birthday, he signed a new three-year contract worth around £10,000 a week.
But with the genie out of the bottle, Evertonians got the feeling Rooney was no longer theirs - he was the nation’s. This was exacerbated when Rooney made his England debut the following February as a substitute against Australia, before a man-of-the match performance on his first start against Turkey in April.
Speculation in the press was already linking Rooney with moves away, as Everton struggled to keep up with the youngster’s rapid development. By the time Euro 2004 came around, the writing was one the wall.
Rooney came through at a wonderful time for Everton, as he helped spearhead the Moyes revolution after years in the doldrums. But he also came through at an awkward time off the pitch, with the club’s perilous finances meaning he was always likely to be sacrificed to appease the banks. If a player of similar ability were to emerge now, I highly doubt he would leave the club before his 19th birthday.
But that is for another time, today is about remembering a player who gave Evertonians a moment to cherish and reason to be proud of our club once more.