Wayne Rooney – the greatest English player of his generation

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As Wayne Rooney moves into full-time management with Derby County, so comes to an end the playing career of the greatest English talent of his generation.

Rooney’s transition into coaching and management is not unexpected. He joined Derby specifically as a player-coach when he returned to England in January 2020 and has been speaking about his ambition to become a manager for several years. He was working towards his coaching badges as early as 2016 when he was still playing for Manchester United and only 30.

This was someone born to be in football.

Wayne Rooney
Rooney won the lot during his glorious club career | Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Rooney made his breakthrough at Everton aged just 16 and quickly went on to score one of the all-time iconic Premier League goals against reigning champions Arsenal in 2002.

He was a first-team regular for the Toffees at 17 and commanded a record fee for a teenager worth nearly £30m when he moved to Manchester United at 18 in 2004.

It had been Rooney’s performances for England at Euro 2004 that summer that sealed Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision that he had to have him. The prodigy scored four times and his injury early into the quarter-final against Portugal when England were leading has always been regarded as a huge ‘what if’ moment.

Rooney score a hat-trick on his United debut in the Champions League against Fenerbahce and got 17 goals in his debut season. He was part of a new and exciting young team, built around the partnership between himself and Cristiano Ronaldo that brought the club’s most concentrated period of success at a time when domestic and European competition was fiercer than ever.

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebr...
Rooney was a key part of an exceptional Man Utd team | PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Rooney won the first of five career Premier League titles in 2006/07, netting more than 20 goals in a single season for the first time. The following year he took the number ten shirt that he would soon become synonymous with and added another domestic title and a Champions League trophy.

With Carlos Tevez also having joined the fold for 2007/08, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez has become revered as one of English football’s all-time great attacking trios.

Another Premier League title and Champions League final followed, with United losing out to Barcelona in Rome. Ronaldo then departed and Rooney assumed the mantle as chief goal threat, showcasing a different side to his game as an out-and-out striker. He got 34 in all competitions in 2009/10 in the first season after Ronaldo’s exit to Real Madrid.

Manchester United's English striker Wayn
Rooney proved himself as a goalscorer after Cristiano Ronaldo left | ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

Rooney’s time at Old Trafford wasn’t without controversy. He asked to leave United at least once, most famously in 2010 when he questioned the club’s ambition. But he signed a new contract and that season brought his most famous goal – a match winning overhead kick against Manchester City – and a record breaking 19th league title for club as a whole.

Again tasked with scoring goals, Rooney got another 34 in 2011/12. The following season, he was back to his usual deeper role, playing provider for new front man Robin van Persie as United won a milestone 20th league title, the fifth of Rooney’s career. It was his raking pass that Van Persie volleyed home in the decisive game against Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

An FA Cup, League Cups, a Club World Cup and the Europa League completed a full set of trophies.

With the club struggling in a changing environment after Ferguson’s retirement, Rooney inherited the captaincy in 2014. By then, he was starting to play a little less often and would regularly drop deeper into midfield to plug holes and add creativity to an poorly recruited squad.

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Rooney finished his career as Man Utd’s leading goalscorer | OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

Rooney’s consistency was remarkable. For 12 consecutive years as a United player, he scored at least 14 goals in all competitions every season – only in his 13th and last did he drop below 10. As a result, by 2017 he had broken Sir Bobby Charlton’s longstanding goal record, scoring his 250th in a game at Stoke and extending it to 253 by the time he left a few months later.

Rooney had already broken Charlton’s England record in 2015, becoming the first player to score 50 senior international goals for the Three Lions.

The player was still capable of making an impact when he returned to boyhood club Everton in 2017 and was a revelation during 18 months in MLS with D.C. United. He single-handedly resurrected the club’s 2018 season, taking them from the bottom of the standings into the playoffs.

What makes him the best English player of his generation when compared to the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard? It’s easy, he won more.

Wayne Rooney
Rooney scored 53 goals in 120 England appearances | Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Rooney was often heavily criticised for underperforming in an England shirt. But he was short of fitness at the World Cup in 2006 after rushing back from a broken foot and carried the weight of an expectant nation on his shoulders after his heroics in 2004.

Lampard, Gerrard and others also underwhelmed for England time after time during that period, so Rooney is far from alone in failing to deliver on the promise of the Golden Generation.

When measuring Rooney’s career, consider that he played 676 games at the highest level for Everton and Manchester United and over 760 at club level in total. He scored 366 career goals for club and country and is the all-time record goalscorer for both England’s most famous and revered club and the national team, as well as England’s most capped outfield player.

He is one of only two players in Premier League history to have scored more than 200 goals in the competition and won best goal at the Premier League 20-year anniversary ceremony. He was also a PFA and FWA award winner and at his peak was genuinely world class.

Enjoy your retirement, Wazza.

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