The Rooney Files: An Interview with Wayne Rooney.
In an exclusive extract from the Manchester United Opus, an 850-page testament to the world's most famous football club, Wayne Rooney reveals how street games made him the player he is today
Carrington, 9.30am, and Wayne Rooney strolls down the stairs to reception. He has got flip flops on his feet and a mug of tea in his hands. Training starts late today, at quarter to 11, but Rooney has been here since just after nine. "Hiya Waaayne!" sings Cath on the front desk. "Two seconds mate," Rooney tells me and smiles. When he is ready we sit down. I'm surprised he is so relaxed. This is Wayne Rooney. He is not supposed to he comfortable with interviews, at expressing himself without a ball at his toes. But Rooney turns out to be few things people imagine. He is friendly.
He is forthright. He is funny, with an easy laugh and Scouse way of drawing you into the joke.
And he is down to earth, unbelievably so given the hype, given his fame.
He begins talking. His square jaw, dusted with stubble, makes him look 30, he grimaces. He has cheery, boyish eyes that render him about 13 when he laughs. He laughs more than he grimaces. If Rooney is one thing, here at United, here in his life, it is happy. He has an embarrassing secret that he doesn't mind sharing, with a giggle.
And football? Well, he loves football. Loves it so much the infatuation the rest of us have seems no more than a crush. Here is someone who after making his England debut, even after storming the gates of superstardom at Euro 2004, was still going home, grabbing his ball, and going for a knockabout in the street. "I did it until leaving Everton," he smiles. "When I finished training I'd come home and go put with mates. Coleen's were usually with me, so I'd end up kicking around with them. I'm sure if I was there now and somebody gave me a ball I'd do the same.' What if there was a ball in this very room? "I'd have to kick it, yeah!" Rooney almost looks under the table to check. "All the players at United will tell you if they pass me the ball before training starts and there's a goal around they know they won't get it back. There's no better feeling in the world than when you go out on the football pitch and play. I can't explain it," he says. "It's brilliant. Even when the ball comes out at training I get the same buzz." Everton coaches laugh about how when Rooney was in their academy, he would rush out of school at bell-time and go straight to the practice ground. He'd be there at 4pm; sessions didn't start until 5.50pm. "Yeah." he grins “I’m still like that now. 1 get here [Carrington] dead early, maybe an hour before training starts ... I just want to keep practising and learn more."
I always try to watch games I've played in. Like any job you’ve got to improve your performance
CROXTETH, Liverpool. Behind Rooney's old house is a fenced-off area, the back part untidy grass, the front a Tarmac strip flecked with broken glass. There's open ground beside it with more grass and a car-free lane. This is it, English football's most significant centre of excellence in 20 years, Rooney’s breeding ground.
"I played football constantly," he says. "Some days when I got home from school I wouldn't even take my uniform off. I went through three or four uniforms a year. My mum would tell you. I had rips in my pants and scuffs on my shoes all the time. "I'd play in the street and I was lucky because behind the house we had a little five-a-side pitch. Tarmac, it was, properly marked out and everything. It belonged to a youth club. I used to climb over our back fence and I'd be there all the time, with my brothers, my cousins or mates. There were no goalposts but an opening with wire behind to stop the ball. If there was no one around I'd go on my own. "I'd be in there for two hours. I'd just shoot, even with no one in goals. And I'd go and fetch the ball and shoot in the other t goal. I'd stay until I felt sick. Then I'd go home and eat"
"Uncle Richie ran the boxing club. His brother Graham was a schoolboy champion, his father and cousins excelled in the ring. Roonev was also handv they say."I didn't have much style, I just used to love throwing punches," he laughs. "Once Everton found out they put a stop to it because they didn't want me burnt out. His whorl of sport was giddying. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for three hours from 5pm he went to the boxing club and at other times he would play table tennis and snooker at the youth club across the road. And that was before he had even begun sating his football habit. He would come out of the boxing club and play football into the night, "even when I didn't have any energy left". At school. he daydreamed about football in class. "I used to miss lessons to play… if I wasn't a football player I don't know what I'd have done to be honest. At the start I think I was good at football through my fitness more than anything. I used to be able to run for ages and because of that I could play more and keep practising more than others, and in games my fitness gave me confidence because I knew I wouldn't tire. Boxing made me fill out and if a defender was there I could always use my body to get out of a situation although I always I preferred to find space, even when I was I small: the more space you have, the more time you'll get on the ball, that's obvious."
Rooney brings thrills out seldom frills on the pitch. When he picks up the ball he goes for goal. Simple. Some players like to think they are direct but him? His purpose is as uncomplicated as that of a bullet leaving a gun. "My uncle used to get me to stand still and see how many keepy-ups I could do but I'd get bored. You're not going to keep the ball up during the game are you? Or stand there doing tricks …”
On his competitive home England debut, Rooney brought the Stadium of Light to its feet by lobbing the ball up and juggling it on the run to get clear of a posse of Turkey defenders. "Only because they were marking me and I had to," he smiles.
OLD TRAFFORD, an autumn evening, the best debut in history. Rooney has not played for 14 weeks since breaking his foot at Euro 2004, and never for Manchester United since being signed for £27m. He is hounded by hype and dogged by stories in the tabloid press. The last time Fenerbahce were in town they destroyed United's 40-year unbeaten home record in Europe. What does Rooney do? Machineguns three goals past the Turks in the opening 54 minutes of his United career, beauties the lot, rat-tat-tat. He shrugs when I mention it: all in a day's work. "I don't see where coaching comes into it, he's got a natural instinct for the game," says Ferguson.
The first time Rooney wowed a United crowd was playing against United for Everton under-10s. "It was an eight-a-side game with small goals, yet Wayne executed this overhead kick that flew in the net. There were a lot of people watching but the place went silent," says Ray Hall, Everton's academy manager. "Someone, Wayne's dad, I think, started clapping. Suddenly everyone, the United parents included, was applauding."
It is not, however, goals that set Rooney apart, or skills, but decisions. He always seems to have more of them open to him than others. He makes them more quickly. He is likelier to be right. Can he relate to players with less game intelligence? He is embarrassed "Ehm," he laughs nervously, "I don't know, really. It's just the way I see things and the way I play.' He lets instinct do the work. lt's like when you were younger and had homework after school. Your mum and dad were telling you to do it, but if you went out and played football you'd forget about it. When you play, you switch off and I think you've got to do that if you want to play well.
"You can't be playing football and thinking about what you're going to do afterwards or what you did the day before. You're best when you're on the pitch and you're not even thinking about football, if it doesn't sound too silly. The best things are the ones which just happen. When you think you just over-complicate it: when the ball comes you just have to do what your body does, what feels right." We talk through a goal he set up for Cristiano Ronaldo against Bolton. He played the pass to Ronaldo's feet without having to look where his colleague stood. How does work? "I get the ball, say 30 yards out, and look round and see Ronaldo's on that side. Ruud [van Nistelrooy] is inside me ... and I'll always have that picture in my head. Then, when I'm running through I know from five seconds earlier that if Ronaldo's there, and defenders are coming towards me, it means Ronaldo might be free, so I've just it hit across the goal and luckyily enough he was there.
'When I was at Everton the coaches used to go on about having a picture in your head. They'd teach you to look round, “ see the game, they'd say, play the way you see. Before I get the ball I always try and I see where people are and that tells me if I need to take the ball and pass it quick or whatever." Team play is natural to him. "If you're somewhere you'd score five times out of 10 and someone else is in a seven or eight out of 10 position, you give them the ball. That's the way I've always seen it. He is a self-analyst. “I always try and watch videos of myself, every game I've played in. Like every job you've got to study your performance and see where you can do better. I'm quite hard on myself. There's been some games, for instance against Blackburn [in the semi-final first leg of the 2005-06 Carling Cup] where I got man of the match and I don't know how. I walked in and didn't even want to pick up the champagne. I felt embarrassed."
What does he watch for? "I try and remember what I was thinking during the game, what I was going to do with the ball, then on telly I can see what I could've done differently." How often is he happy with his performance? “Never.”
Some players hate being spectators. Not Rooney. "I'll watch any game that's on telly, whether it's non-League or Premiership ... though I can't watch Italian football, it's too boring. I was a ball boy at Everton for three years and a mascot sometimes and my uncle took me to games at Goodison Park. I loved watching the forward and midfield players.” This brings us to his embarrassing secret. His boyhood idol? "I'd probably say…” giggles come. "Anders Limpar." Never. "Ehhm, he played for Everton and he used to shoot and dribble more than Duncan [Ferguson]."
CITY OF MANCHESTER STADIUM, a derby day. How do you beat talent like Rooney's? You don't. But you can make him beat himself. Forty-five minutes into the game, United are losing and their star player has been riled by a series of tackles from City's flinty young right-back Stephen Jordan. Steve Bennett, the referee has let it go without sanction. Rooney has had enough. After Jordan catches him with his studs and Bennett waves play on, Rooney chases the official, sock down and, shin-guard off to display the welts on his leg. He is booked for complaining. Coming in at half-time he punches and kicks a swing door leading to the dressing room — and confronts Bennett in the tunnel.
The newspapers love it: "Rooney rage!" His "temper problem". It is said Rooney "loses it" when he can't impose his will on opponents, or referees offend him. But watch him closely: when his blood boils isn't the ignition point usually a moment when he becomes annoyed with his own performance? "You're probably right," he agrees. "When I give the ball away and the other team goes and scores I blame myself. It does my head in. If I lose the ball I have to try and win it back as soon as possible ... and when things aren't going right in your game you get frustrated, every player does.”
In the derby he would have been having an off day? "Yeah, although in that game I asked the ref four times to protect me. The week before I'd been kicked a lot at Blackburn. All I said — four times — was ‘'Ref, will you please protect me?' And I got stamped on four times. My foot was black and blue and my knee was all over the place. I tried to talk to the ref but, you know how refs are these days, he wouldn't even look at me.
"I just want to play football and sometimes I get angry, sometimes I don't. I try and hold myself back and think for a minute, then react after that. I'm getting better at taking a deep breath. I try not to get involved because it can affect my performance."
For someone who savours every moment on the football field, being banished must be the worst possible thing to happen. "Definitely, it's horrible when you get sent off and I hope I never get sent off again." He feels, nevertheless, his "temper problem" is a media construction. There was a point, early in his career, when he had been booked more often than he had scored for Everton but his first 75 United games brought 14 yellow cards and one red (at Villareal). Hardly wild-man stuff.
"Everything I do gets blown up, whether I do good or bad things in a match, it's always the highlights. It's not as if I'm getting booked every week. But I'm used to it now and I don't take much notice of what's written or said. A lot of the people who talk about me don't really know the game, to be honest. One time they're saying this and the next time they're' saying that. You just blank it. With the media, my agent was good with me at an early stage. He told me what was going I happen and got me on the front foot."
GOODISON PARK, an autumn afternoon. It is five days from Rooney's 17th birthday in 2002 and he scores his first Premiership" goal — screamed into David Seaman's top corner - against Arsenal, the champions. Doesn't he ever get nervous? "Yeah, before every match. Every player gets nervous in the dressing room and in the tunnel when you're waiting to go out. But once you're playing the nerves go away." What's his pre-match routine? "Eh, I don't know why, but even before training I'll never put my socks on where I’m sitting. I'll always go to someone else's seat. I put on my strip and then I've got to move to do the socks. I don't know if the other players notice. They stand up and when they come back I'm sitting in their seat." Some players spend their last pre-match moments in silence, getting focused. "Nah. In the dressing room before the game me and Ronaldo always start joking and messing around, just to relax, you know, and take the pressure away." He seems confident in every game. "Yeah. Every game I go into I think I'm going to win and score. Ask anyone. Everything I play — if it's the computer, snooker, whatever — I'm always 100% confident I'll win, even if I've never played it before. People might say that sounds big-headed, and you don't always win of course, but I think I'm positive and take that into everything I do."
CARRINGTON, a summer's afternoon. It's 2020 and Rooney is cleaning out his locker after half a lifetime at United. The testimonial the night before was bittersweet. The last 16 years, for United fans, have been unmissable.
He says he wants to be remembered not for what he does as an individual but what the teams he plays for win. And "I want win the lot. Every tournament, every cup, every game. I came to United to win and nothing's changed." It wasn’t a difficult decision to say yes to United in August 2004. "If you look at the records it's a massive club, the trophies it's won over the last 15 years are unbelievable. I wanted to be part of it. As soon as I was aware United were interested I said to my agent, ‘That’s the only club I want to sign for’.”
Sir Bobby Charlton sees similarities between Rooney and Duncan Edwards. Ferguson thinks Rooney, of all the prodigies he has worked with, is the best. Shaking his head with an affectionate laugh, Ryan Giggs remarks that Rooney is the only footballer he's ever seen more confident on the pitch than Eric Cantona.
“I've learnt a little bit about United's history. There's always little things around the training ground about Bobby Charlton and so on and I've seen videos of Bobby, Best and Law”, Rooney says. They were brilliant players. When you see someone like Bobby still working at Old Trafford, that’s really good.” What has Ferguson taught him? "He's instilled a winning mentality in me. He's made me aware how much this club wants to win. I always wanted to win anyway but he's taken it that step further." Has he ever had the hairdryer? "Not really. I'm not really sure what the hairdryer is ... he's been brilliant with me. He's a great manager, a great person. What he's won over the years is frightening and I'm just happy to be part of one of his teams. His door is always open. He's told me many times that if I ever need anything, just call him.”
One of the Carrington staff pops their head round the door. It's training time. Rooney's wanted in the gym. "Okay mate?" he asks. More than okay.
He is off. He can almost feel it. Before long he'll once more be caressing a football with his insteps and feeling the sweet violence of putting his foot through a ball and making it hurtle towards a goal. And every time he does these things he absorbs a little more about his craft, the immensity of his talent expands a little further.
"I want to make the most of what I've got," he muses. "I want to be the best I can be. If you've got something there's no point wasting it, throwing it away. You should try and build on it and make it better. Only Wayne Rooney thinks you can improve on Wayne Rooney.