8:00am Friday 8th March 2013
By Scott Wilson
I'M often asked, 'What's the best football match you've ever been to'? From a professional point of view, I doubt I'll ever top the thrill of covering Middlesbrough's two remarkable comebacks in their run to the UEFA Cup final.
But in terms of purely enjoying things from the perspective of a fan, I'll always have fond memories of sitting in the Estadio Cidade in Coimbra during the 2004 European Championships and watching England thrash Switzerland 3-0.
It was the first major tournament I'd been to, and I'm sure the glorious weather and the fact I was travelling round Portugal with a group of close mates was a factor. The free-flowing Portuguese lager probably helped too.
But above all else, the game remains memorable because of one man. Wayne Rooney. This was the day when England's emerging superstar looked to have the world at his feet.
He was only 18 back then, a rampaging bull of a player who combined all the features you would want in a teenage talent. Strong, skilful and fearless, he was the street footballer who looked like he had stepped out of a Liverpool council estate ready to take on the world. Sven-Goran Eriksson likened him to Pele, and you didn't scoff at the comparison.
He scored two goals that day, the first, which made him England's youngest ever tournament goalscorer, celebrated with an ebullient somersault, and the second, a barnstorming run and ferocious low finish, providing confirmation of his potential.
England had been crying out for a world-class superstar for what seemed like an eternity. Players had come close in the 1980s and 90s - Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Michael Owen - but none had quite managed to ascend to the pantheon of all-time greats reserved for the likes of Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and now Lionel Messi.
On that bright June day, Rooney looked capable of doing exactly that. He was going to be our saviour, ensuring English dominance for the next decade and winning European titles with whichever club he was about to join from Everton later that summer.
So when it comes to assessing Rooney's career in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson's shock decision to drop him for Manchester United's most important game of the season on Tuesday night, it's hard not to feel a pang of sadness at his failure to live up to those hopes.
That is not to suggest, in any way, that he has been a failure. He has scored 33 goals in an England shirt and, given that he is still only 27, remains well on track to beat Bobby Charlton's all-time record of 49.
He has won the Champions League, four Premier League titles - surely five come May - and two League Cup winners' medals. He was voted PFA Player's Player of the Year in 2010.
Yet when you cast your mind back to those heady days of 2004, it feels as though all of that isn't enough.
He's been unable to inspire England to the last four of a major tournament, and while he's hardly the only player to have under-performed for the national team in the last decade, since the end of Euro 2004, you can count the number of matches he's performed brilliantly in on the fingers of one hand.
When he joined Manchester United, he was the darling of Old Trafford, yet that mantle quickly passed to Cristiano Ronaldo, and while Rooney's career has progressed at roughly the same level, Ronaldo's has catapulted through the stratosphere.
It is the Portuguese who is tussling with Messi for the mantle of the world's best player - in the last round of voting for the Ballon D'Or, Rooney's only two votes came from Georgia and North Korea - and there was an unfortunate symmetry about Ronaldo's match-winning goal on Tuesday coinciding with Rooney's demotion to the bench.
Since Robin van Persie's arrival last summer, Rooney has no longer been the number one striker on Manchester United's books. On Tuesday, Ferguson's decision to select Danny Welbeck ahead of him meant he wasn't even the number two.
So where did it go wrong? Injuries have taken their toll, and have been exacerbated by a rush to return the striker to full fitness, particularly from an England perspective. The occasional off-field indiscretion has also caused unnecessary strife.
In general terms, though, Rooney has simply stagnated. Somewhat inevitably, he has lost much of the fearless innocence that characterised his youth, with the exuberance having been replaced by a more predictable approach that appears to rely less on instinct.
He has never really had a clearly defined role, and while that works for someone like Messi, whose talent and technique enable him to drift all over the place and cause problems from a variety of positions, Rooney often falls between two stools, not direct enough to play up front, not quite skilful enough to unlock a back four in the style of a traditional number ten.
He lacks a dynamic burst of pace, has never really been a technically-brilliant dribbler, and while his work ethic has never diminished, his devotion to the team has often detracted from his individual performance.
Ferguson appears to have concluded as much, and it will now be a surprise if Rooney remains at Old Trafford beyond the end of the season.
In Tuesday's match programme, Rooney revealed his chosen superpower would be to see into the future. In 2004, we thought we could. Sadly, we were wrong.
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