He came back, he saw Joe Hart off his line, he never quite conquered. The book was closed on Wayne Rooney’s illustrious playing career when he became Derby County’s permanent manager on Friday. But for all the nets he rippled, all the records he shattered, all the silver he stockpiled, his two spells with Everton feel enveloped in a rueful sense of regret.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Signed at nine, under-19s debutant at 15, second-youngest Everton first team player at 16, Rooney was, however briefly, an Evertonian idol, a poster boy for a fresh new era, a beacon of hope after the 1990s had proved a largely dismal decade for the club. Instantaneously, his talent and potential became too colossal to ignore, or even to keep at arm’s length.
Not just for ‘that Arsenal goal’ when Rooney, still 16, stroked home an injury-time winner past David Seaman, against a side previously unbeaten in 30 games, with a maturity belying his teenage years. Too often overlooked, for instance, is his second strike against Tottenham in the FA Youth Cup semi-final the previous April, when Rooney fired home a stunning 30-yard missile from a rebound off his own free-kick to restore Everton’s lead. This match, David Moyes later revealed, was when the Scot became certain he already belonged in his first team.
Yet Rooney’s unrivalled ability was always just as evident as his devotion to his boyhood club. The Merseyside derby mascot appearance at 11, the ‘Once a Blue, always a Blue’ t-shirt reveal in the Youth Cup final, the donning of Everton attire at Liverpool trials - all of this only rendered the Goodison Park faithful more besotted with him. And conversely, all the more betrayed by him when, in 2004, he left for Manchester United in such sour fashion.
In terms of furthering his career, only a cold-hearted cynic could have begrudged Rooney the move. He lifted a Champions League and every major trophy in the English game, and remains United’s all-time top scorer. Comparatively, Everton’s progress under Moyes proved modest, incremental and, from a silverware perspective, non-existent. And for Everton, far from being blessed with their current largesse, a reported £26 million fee went an awfully long way. Instead, what rankled was how those gestures which once tugged at royal blue heartstrings suddenly felt eerily hollow, exacerbated further by his United badge-kissing and exhilarated goal celebrations at Goodison.
Then came the prodigal son’s return home in the summer of 2017, which at best transpired as a mildly enjoyable nostalgia trip and at worst a PR gaffe of Thick-of-It proportions. It began well enough; Rooney netted Everton’s winner against Stoke on his second league debut, then put them ahead in a draw at Manchester City a week later. But the longer a dreary season wore on, the more anticlimactic it became; truthfully, it went neither as badly as feared, nor as well as hoped.
But if a drink-driving incident in September of that year was a self-inflicted wound, extenuating circumstances were otherwise culpable for Rooney’s comeback petering out. Ronald Koeman’s assortment of new attacking midfielders all felt at odds with one another, and the Dutchman was sacked after nine league games. When Sam Allardyce eventually arrived after a month in limbo with David Unsworth, Rooney then found himself sinking ever deeper into Everton’s midfield morass. Which was jarring, knowing what he could have been, or at least once was, capable of.
Still, there were moments to savour. Not IMAX-scale spectacles, admittedly, but that Stoke goal, his hat-trick against West Ham when he lobbed Hart from the halfway line, and his equaliser at Anfield were about as exciting as it got for Everton in a pathetic campaign. Rooney, despite not adding to his 11 goals after Christmas, was not to blame for this, for neither Koeman nor Allardyce knew how best to utilise him. He played up front, as a number ten, and was occasionally shifted wide, before eventually slumming it as a defensive midfielder. All of these things and none of them. Everywhere and nowhere.
Again, this culminated in him departing Everton under a spectre of acrimony. Rooney swiftly left for DC United in June 2018, later bemoaning the lack of transparency from the Goodison hierarchy (the then-departed Allardyce aside). Yet in truth, it felt slightly like an extended lap of honour for Rooney from the moment he left Old Trafford; a three-and-a-half-year farewell tour from Manchester to Derby, via a brief homecoming and a stint in the States.
Consequently, Rooney does not bow out an Everton legend. He left too early and returned too late for that argument to carry any substance. But beneath the bluster and bad blood, and even if the move to United made sense, you wonder if the fact his time at Everton felt so unfulfilling still stings him. Rooney has made no secret of his desire to manage Everton, either, which may only have been furthered by the curtain crashing down on him at Goodison.
It will make for fascinating viewing to see how he takes to management. As a striker, he always hit his stride when playing on the edge, when he channelled bubbling aggression into positive energy, when it was Wayne Rooney versus the world. It’s an attitude which should serve him well should it endure into his time on the touchline.
Even before Friday’s coronation, and the subsequent home defeat to Rotherham, there had been signs of Rooney’s imprint while acting as Derby’s interim boss. A far cry from Phillip Cocu’s overcomplicated methods, Rooney and his esteemed coaching staff made nailing the basics their first port of call. When Cocu was sacked in mid-November, Derby were bottom with one victory in 11. Rooney has won four of 12 which, if unspectacular, still represents improvement. Five clean sheets in six December games, including a 4-0 shellacking of Birmingham, was the strongest indicator yet of his impact.
But Derby is not an Everton audition for Rooney. Even in an age where appointing former players, however underqualified they appear, is grossly in vogue, he will need a more extensive CV before such conversations can be had.
Plus, Everton have already exhausted the list of bright young managers since Moyes left, and are now so heavily wedded and indebted to Carlo Ancelotti that theirs is a hot seat unlikely to be vacant any time soon. But given it’s been a lamentable tale of what might have been thus far, perhaps another chapter of Rooney and Everton is still yet to be written.