Wayne Rooney returns to Everton

Thirteen years ago, Everton sold Wayne Rooney to Manchester United. At the time, Rooney, age 18, wasn’t just the best young footballer in England, he was as a good a young player as England had seen in the 25 years I had been following the English game (and in the 13 years since), a status he had underlined with a breakout performance at the 2004 European Championships.

Rooney basically forced the sale, and the affair became quite acrimonious. The war of words between Rooney and Everton management led to a defamation suit against Rooney by manager David Moyes. The case settled when young Wayne apologized to Moysey. (The two were later reunited when Moyes became Man U’s manager. Rooney played brilliantly and hard for Moyes, one of the few United players to do so).

When Rooney left, Everton fans were furious with him. A boyhood Evertonian, he used to sport a tee-shirt that said “once a blue, always a blue.” His obvious desire to leave seemed to many like a betrayal.

However, I didn’t see it that way. In 2004, Everton was in financial trouble. It wasn’t clear how much longer we’d be playing in the Premier League. By contrast, Manchester United was the best team in England and one of the five best in Europe.

No player in his right mind would have turned down the opportunity to play for Man U in favor of staying with the Toffees. True, Rooney didn’t handle the departure well. But remember — he was only 18 years old at the time.

At Manchester United, Rooney delivered on 95 percent (or so) of his enormous potential — a return even those of us with considerably less potential should be proud of. He became the team’s all-time leading goal-scorer and the all-time leading goal-scorer for the English national team. His team a Champions League (i.e., the European club championship), Europa League, five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, three League Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.

Rooney fell short of reaching 100 percent of potential only because, for various reasons, he never excelled at the World Cup (in three appearances) and never again excelled at the Euros (in two appearances). But, though he let England down a little on the biggest stages, he had plenty of great moments for his country. And, as I said, he’s the national team’s all-time leading scorer.

Meanwhile, Everton made out okay on the Rooney transfer. The money we received helped us out of financial difficulty and put us on the road back to respectability.

Nonetheless, Rooney took an enormous amount of abuse from the Everton faithful when his team visited Goodison Park. When Rooney added to the tension by ostentatiously kissing his Man U badge when he scored at Goodison, things got really ugly.

But then a funny thing happened. Everton fans saw pictures of Rooney’s small kids decked out in Everton gear. (Rooney now says he and his kids wear Everton pajamas, which carries things a bit far, I think). We learned that the first thing he does after his own matches are over is check the Everton result. He returned to Goodison to play in a testimonial match for Toffee’s legend Duncan Ferguson.

Unlike so many boyhood Evertonians who achieve stardom for our hated rivals Man United and especially Liverpool (the list is a long one), he remained an Everton supporter in the face of all the abuse.

As Rooney’s career at Man U wound down, I was pretty sure he would return to Everton. There was more money to be made in China and easier money to be made in the U.S. But I didn’t see Rooney turning down a chance to return to his boyhood club, and I figured the team would want him back, provided he still had something to offer.

Now the deal has been made. The price is 10 million pounds, about a tenth of what Everton is expected to receive from Man U for star striker Romelu Lukaku.

The reaction on Everton-related websites has been largely positive. Few still hold the old grudge. The focus is almost entirely on whether Rooney can help Everton, as it should be.

I think he can. The great footballing brain and range of passing are still there. The problem is his legs. Last year he looked slow. As a result, he lost his starting job with a Man U team that, we shouldn’t forget, finished only one place ahead of Everton.

So it’s possible that Rooney will be a “squad player” for us. But because we’ll be playing in the Europa League next year — which means matches on Thursday and Sunday football — we will need squad players. Our past ventures into European football have been marred by a lack of team depth, which has rendered us unable to compete effectively both in Europe and in England.

As importantly, we will need leaders with experience playing big European matches and handling the competing demands of Europe and England. With the possible exception of John Terry, who will be laboring for Aston Villa in England’s second tier this coming season, no English player has more big match experience than Wayne Rooney.

Where will Rooney play? He has always been able to play anywhere other than on the back line, but with his legs diminished, that’s no longer the case. His best position is probably as a playmaker just behind the center forward. Alternatively, he could play alongside a center forward who is willing and able to do lots of running. Newly acquired Sandro Ramirez is such a center forward.

Ross Barkley, the closest thing Everton has had to Rooney since he left (though not all that close) has held down the position of playmaker just behind the center forward in recent years. Barkley reportedly is coveted by some bigger clubs, and may be sold. Rooney, used judiciously, might be a good replacement. Alternatively, he could share the job with Barkley and perhaps help him take that final step to stardom.

The fly in the ointment is Rooney’s wages. He will make around 150,000 pounds per week. That’s about half of what he was making at Man U and less than he would make in China. However, it is more than any Everton player.

Rooney isn’t worth nearly that much to Everton as a player, even taking into account his outstanding leadership qualities. However, he may be worth his wages if one takes marketing into account.

Rooney remains one of the biggest names in world soccer. If he gives us two years of decent football, he might significantly increase Everton’s footprint outside of England, not to mention the sale of Everton jerseys.

In any event, Everton now, finally, as a rich owner. He can afford to pay Rooney’s wages and still sign good young players. We have already made some excellent signings this off-season, and the Lukaku sale should enable us to make more. Rooney should be viewed as the icing on the cake.

Welcome back, Wayne.

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