LONDON — He’s being called Ronaldo and after just nine Premiership appearances his shirt is the best seller in the Everton souvenir shop.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says he is the best young English player he has seen in his six years at Highbury. Some pundits are even saying he should be in the England team.
Ladies and gentleman, we give you Wayne Rooney, the latest sensation of English football who turned 17 on Thursday, rides a BMX and has created history in the past week.
On Saturday his last-minute goal ended Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run and made Rooney (16 years, 360 days) the youngest player ever to score in the Premiership, beating Liverpool’s Michael Owen by 149 days. David Seaman, the Arsenal goalkeeper who was powerless to stop Rooney’s 25-meter shot, is the same age as the Everton striker’s dad — 39.
Earlier this week Rooney notched up what must surely be another record — the signing of his first professional contract was delayed because he is changing agents (remember he was still 16 at the time).
His wage packet — at the moment — is a humble £80 per week and reports suggest that in December, when Rooney finally puts pen to paper on a new three-year deal, that will increase to £1,000 plus bonuses which include an extra £7,000 for every first team appearance. Rooney can expect a lot of bonuses and the BMX will no doubt soon be replaced by a BMW when he passes his driving test.
David Moyes, the Everton manager, is doing his best to protect Rooney from the inevitable media spotlight but the tourism office in Baghdad probably has an easier job.
Rooney is not doing any interviews yet “to keep the pressure off him” which is one of those quaint English quirks — playing against double winner Arsenal in a packed stadium before the TV cameras is presumably less pressure than talking to Her Majesty’s press.
Born in 1985, Rooney made his first “appearance” for Everton against Liverpool on November 20, 1996, when at age 11, he was the mascot. He made his debut for Everton’s Under-19’s at age 14 and was called up for England Under-17’s when he was 15.
In April of this year Rooney was on the bench for the first time against Southampton but did not get on. His debut came on Aug. 17 against Tottenham, his first caution was in the 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, his first senior goals (two) came in the 3-0 Worthington Cup victory over Wrexham on Oct. 1 – and then THE goal against Arsenal.
“He’s supposed to be 16,” said Wenger shaking his head and breaking the usual manager protocol of not speaking about other teams’ players. “He is a natural football player. Even if you were playing on the beach — four against four you would see that. He isn’t someone who just stands in the penalty area and waits to score.
“I think he could also play anywhere. You could put him on the wing, you could put him in the center, you can put him behind the striker. He can dribble and I love strikers who can dribble.
“Michael Owen is a complete striker but I didn’t see him at 16. At that age Rooney is already a complete footballer. The guy can play.”
Rooney still plays street football with his pals outside the council house on the estate in the Croxteth area of Liverpool where he lives with his dad Wayne Sr., mom Jeanette and younger brothers Graham and John — every one Evertonian through and through.
Moyes has a wonderful dilemma — when to play the new sensation of English football. The suspicion is that Rooney will be used sparingly for the time being and Moyes said: “There are special players who have graced the game and Wayne can go on to become another. The encouraging thing is that his feet are on the floor, a very level-headed lad. On the morning of the Arsenal game he came with me to watch the Under-17s.
“As a player he hasn’t got everything yet and has a lot of developing to do. He’s still a young boy who’s happy with a ball at his feet. Sir Alex Ferguson had the right idea with Ryan Giggs, bringing him on slowly but surely. I’ll do the same with Wayne, being as careful as I can. But there is no doubt he’s the best 16-year-old I’ve seen.
“His contract is a three-year deal with a two-year option. The great thing is he’s an Everton supporter. He was brought up around here and is happy to commit himself to the club.”
The problem Moyes has is to keep Rooney away from the inevitable temptations a teenage boy can enjoy. It is unreasonable to expect a well-paid young lad to lead a life of tee-total celibacy, but Rooney will be advised to keep most things to moderation — except goal scoring.