Just over ten years ago, Duncan Ferguson turned his finest performance of many in Everton colors. The rumbustious Scot rolled back the years on an atmospheric evening at Goodison Park, running amok amidst a terrified Manchester United defence and scoring the winning goal for the Toffees in a famous 1-0 win.
It was a special evening for Evertonians; a win inspired by a talismanic figure, under the lights and a triumph that was vital in their charge towards the Champions League.
On the same pitch that evening was Wayne Rooney, a man who many expected to follow in Ferguson’s firebrand footsteps and inspire the Merseysiders to a clutch victories of comparable clout. But instead of donning the blue and white he had adorned and adored growing up, Rooney was in the Red of United.
The game was eight months from the forward’s controversial move from Merseyside to Manchester and the animosity towards the youngster was still raw. Having professed his love for the Blues, grown as a player through the revered academy and thrilled as a 16-year-old in the strip of his beloved club, Rooney had lifted a moribund mood that had engulfed Goodison.
But the England man was sold, badly advised and given his tempestuous streak at the time, circumstances were always going to become volatile. Subsequently, Rooney was subject to some of the most brutal invective any player has had to endure in the Premier League era; the supporters now hated him more than anyone because they had loved more than anyone.
Granted, Rooney did little to placate matters—kissing the United badge provocatively, doing star jumps in front of the Park End—and given the vitriol that came his way, he had every right to give some back. But down the years the needle between the Everton academy graduate and the Goodisan Park crowd has almost entirely ceased.
Of course, time is a great healer, even when it comes to the gaping wounds Rooney left when departing the club. But soccer supporters are a notoriously fickle bunch. After all, if Luis Figo returned to the Camp Nou today, would he receive anything other than a flurry of insults? If Sol Campbell rocked up at White Hart Lane, would he be spared the anger of the crowd?
Probably not, but as Rooney gets set to return to Goodison Park this weekend, his past is no longer a pertinent storyline. Once, every touch of the ball he had was met with a cacophony of boos from the watching scousers, but now his presence on the pitch rarely stirs any more emotion than anyone else in United red.
If anything, there’s a growing affinity between the two parties again. Rooney has posted pictures on his Twitter account of his young son Kai in an Everton strip, was at Wembley to cheer on the Toffees in the 2009 FA Cup final and back in January 2010, conducted an extended four-part interview with the club’s official website.
There seems to have been a burgeoning acceptance that his move was probably the right thing for both parties too. Rooney has gone on to score an astonishing amount of goals for United and England; in addition, he’s also poised to break the record for appearances and goals for his international team.
For the Toffees, while it was a wrench to see one of their own turn his back on the club so early, a lot of good ultimately came from his sale. While all of the £30 million recouped wasn’t spent in one chunk, David Moyes made some astute signings with the cash received and in the season immediately following Rooney’s sale, guided the Toffees to a simply astonishing fourth place finish.
From a blue perspective, it’s tough to bracket Rooney as an Evertonian now anyway. After all, he only scored 17 goals for the club and while he was a Toffee when he tore up the 2004 European Championships, there was an irrepressible sense that it was only a matter of time before he set off in search of pastures new, especially given the club’s precarious financial situation.
In addition, watching Rooney develop over the years, for all the goals and all the titles he has won, there’s a festering sense that those who packed out Goodison to watch him in the infancy of his career probably saw the best of the forward as a player too.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson he blossomed into an altruistic, functional forward who was a critical cog in a superb side. But at Everton, free of the shackles that accompany any player performing for an elite club, he was a footballing force of nature.
It was a swagger on show in earnest during Rooney’s first game for United—when he scored a hattrick against Fenerbahce—and the major tournament that preceded it. But since then, for all the magnificent numbers he’s racked up, it’s a panache that has been increasingly scarce.
It’d be intriguing to know what the current Rooney—a much more mature and placated figure than the striker who goaded the fanbase he himself was once entrenched in—thinks when he looks back on how the move was handled. The attempts to build bridges point towards a tinge of regret and there’s even been talk of a potential return to the club late in his career.
But for a player who has come to be almost emblematic of United, it’s easy to forget Rooney was once the darling of Goodison Park. Over a decade on from his transfer, that’s certainly the case for an increasing majority of Evertonians.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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