England go into this summer’s Euros with their finest collection of young talent in a generation. Mason Mount has just set up the winner in a Champions League final. Phil Foden is capable of wizardry thought long forgotten in the English game.
Declan Rice has blossomed into one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League. Jadon Sancho will command a £90 million fee to prise him away from Borussia Dortmund. His teammate Jude Bellingham, recipient of the Bundesliga Best Newcomer award, is only 17.
They’re ready to show the rest of Europe exactly why England is again caught in a wave of belief and “It’s Coming Home” will ring around beer gardens.
Yet, no matter what Gareth Southgate’s band of golden boys achieve at the Euros, it’s unlikely they’ll make as much of an impact as the last English player to genuinely shake a tournament to its foundations when Wayne Rooney blew the doors off Euro 2004 and introduced himself to the world.
Cast your mind back to 2004.
It was a monumental summer for English football. The Special One would arrive at Chelsea, Milton Keynes put the final nail in Wimbledon’s coffin and the Divisions became the Championship, League 1 and 2.
It was a summer where having BBQs and garden parties to watch the England game still meant dragging the “main” telly out and hooking it up to an extension cable, precariously balancing it on a table. It was the summer where Eamon and Frankee topped the UK charts with their back and forth breakup beef and McFly turned up singing about a girl with five colours in her hair.
It was the summer of the silver and black adidas roteiro ball that moved in the air if you hit it in the sweet spot. It was the summer of red and white Total 90s.
It was Wayne Rooney’s golden summer.
Rooney had already announced himself to English football fans with his crashing 30 yard screamer past David Seaman as a 16 year old and his 9 goals for Everton in the 2003/04 season had helped to steer the Toffees clear of relegation. It was time for international duty.
Rooney joined an England squad that is still dubbed as the “Golden Generation”, with Michael Owen, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Sol Campbell, John Terry and Gary Neville part of the side heading to Portugal as one of the favourites to win the full tournament.
If England were to win Euro 2004, they couldn’t have asked for a harder start as reigning champions France laid in wait in their opening game of Group B. Despite crashing out of the group stages of the previous World Cup, they had still won 2 of the past 3 major tournaments and their team was littered with superstars.
The enigmatic baldy Fabien Barthez guarded the French goal and was protected by a backline of Bixente Lizarazu, Mikael Silvestre, William Gallas and the legendary Lilian Thuram. The rest of the French team was simply a joke.
Claude Makelele, fresh off his first season at Chelsea and about to tie his name to the defensive midfield position for eternity, was partnered by Arsenal’s invincible colossus Patrick Viera.
Another of The Invincibles, Robert Pires, danced his way down the right while supplying ammo for the deadly duo of David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry. France’s strikeforce had bagged 61 goals between them that season for Arsenal and Juventus with Henry being the poster boy of the Premier League.
This terrifying troupe of French excellence was headlined by the irrepressible Zinedine Zidane, at that point the most expensive player on the planet, leader of Real Madrid’s Galacticos. This was a team that oozed va-va-voom, a team of intergalactic superstars.
And Wayne Rooney, a spotty little pitbull from a council estate in Croxteth decided it would be a laugh to make them all look human.
Rooney, with typical teenage arrogance, set about the France team determined to make them all look foolish. It was like he was playing against his mates in the local footy cage, the complete lack of respect he showed to living legends of the game.
He was tying Makelele up in knots with quick flashes and drops of the shoulder. Nobody did that to Makelele. He nutmegged Robert Pires deep inside his own half, giving the Arsenal man a taste of his own medicine after a season of embarrassing Premier League defenders, in a move that would be coached out of young players in the modern game.
He even went up against Zidane, the master reduced to kicking out at the student as Rooney pulled away from the exalted playmaker with a Maradona turn.
There was a flash of the burning rage that would fuel Rooney’s game for years to come when he smashed an elbow into Thuram’s jaw when going for a 50/50. He was linking up well with future Man United teammate Scholes and shrugging off another, Mikael Silvestre, with ease.
England went ahead when a trademark Beckham free kick was headed home by Frank Lampard in the 38th minute and the Three Lions went into halftime with the lead intact. The second half started with more of the same, Rooney a constant pain for a French team struggling to test David James in goal.
It was almost as if Rooney had managed to suck the soul out of France and Les Bleus were being subjected to a Space Jam beatdown.
When Becks’ hooked clearance found Wayne just inside the England half, with Lilian Thuram for company, it shouldn’t of been a surprise to see the Everton wonderkid effortlessly flick the ball over the full-back. Thurham, that night, was no match for Wayne Rooney.
The striker raced onto the ball and charged towards Barthez’s box. The only thing that could stop the teenager scoring his first tournament goal for his country was Mikael Silvestre’s desperate and cynical challenge. Penalty to England.
Beckham missed and shortly after, with his cheeks burning red, Rooney was replaced by Emile Heskey. The entire French nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Once Rooney had left the pitch, France rediscovered their mojo, now freed of their teenage tormentor. Zidane whipped a majestic free kick equaliser that bamboozled David James before Steven Gerrard’s clumsy tackle allowed the Madrid maestro to complete the comeback from the penalty spot.
For all of Rooney’s effort, France won 2-1 but in the grand scheme of things, the result didn’t matter. England had found it’s new hero. In a time where every footballer seemed to have crazy haircuts, flashy cars and Page 3 girlfriends, Wayne Rooney was one of us. He was sensational. He was outrageous. He was ours. If he could start scoring, there was no reason why Rooney couldn’t be considered the best player at the tournament.
And he did start scoring. He gifted the British press, who would dog and harrass him for the next decade, with a tap-in headline as England rolled over Switzerland after Rooney bagged a brace. He nodded his first in from Michael Owen’s clipped ball and cartwheeled away (this really was a young Wayne Rooney) before cannoning his second off the head of goalkeeper Joerg Stiel. Those goals made Rooney the youngest ever scorer at a European Championships.
Croatia were next, before they became our international nemesis, with “the new Gazza” hitting another double. Having already had a hand in Scholes’s equaliser, Rooney let one rip from 25 yards and then showed an icy balance to his fiery persona, coolly slotting past Tomislav Butina. England won 4-2, securing a second place finish in the group, the reward being a quarter-final clash with Portugal.
Rooney-mania had swept the nation. Sven-Goran Eriksson had fuelled the fire a day before the quarter-final by saying “I don’t remember anyone making such an impact since Pele in the 1958 World Cup. Rooney’s absolutely fantastic, not only at scoring goals, but he plays football – he’s a complete footballer”.
The game against the tournament hosts couldn’t have started any better. Michael Owen gave Eriksson’s men the lead after three minutes and the mere presence of Wayne Rooney was causing terror in the Portuguese ranks. They were so frightened by the talent of the Scouser that Owen, still considered as one of Europe’s deadliest strikers at the time, was being allowed to roam the final third unmarked.
Then disaster struck. In the 27th minute Rooney went down after a challenge from Jorge Andrade. Not only was the boy wonder hurt, he was out of the tournament. When Andrade had broken Rooney’s metatarsal, he’d broken English hearts and any hope of them lifting the championship.
Portugal would go on to equalise, England lost on penalties and a nation mourned what might have been. There’s no doubt that with the snarling Evertonian smashing through teams that we would have gone on to win the tournament. He’d have won the Golden Boot (Milan Baroš eventually won it with 5) and would’ve placed even higher than 8th spot in that year’s Ballon d’Or.
In that alternate reality, Wayne Rooney would get the credit that he richly deserves.
Even though he went on to become England and Manchester United’s leading goalscorer, Rooney never quite captured our hearts like that again. It’s the failure to never replicate that impossible summer again that people focus on.
Gareth Southgate said in his inspirational open letter in the Players Tribune this week that supporting England and the idea of being English means different things to different people.
It’s why, as people rush around to spend hundreds of pounds on vintage Gazza 19 Italia 90 shirts that’ll get soaked in beer this summer, I’m already set.
I’ll be wearing the shirt that makes me feel like a child again. It’s not comfortable. It’s not cool and trendy but it’s England to me. Red with a silver Rooney 9 emblazoned on the back.
It reminds me of that summer. Before the snarling down the camera, the granny shagging, the greed and the slow trudge through the Championship at the curtain call of his career.
It reminds me of a golden summer. Wayne Rooney’s golden summer.