By Jamie Davies
“He plucked it out of the air, turned and curled it top corner!”
I was 11 then as I floated out of Goodison Park, riding a high I’d never truly experienced before. The fella describing what had just taken place could have also been mistaken to be a lot younger, such was the exuberance and sheer excitement he emitted to the mystery recipient on the other end of the phone. Kid-like at Christmas almost.
But he wasn’t a kid. I was surrounded by dads, uncles, grandads… all waxing lyrical like I’d never seen before about a kid who had just ended Arsenal’s infamous unbeaten run. Even at 11, I was able to see the buzz coming from Goodison wasn’t normal. Never had I seen my uncle seem so vehemently protective, supportive and possessive over a single talent. Not only at Goodison; I’d be happily left to watch the match, play pool or have a kick about outside whilst he and his mates in The Hermitage gossiped about this boy wonder like teenage schoolgirls. Outside, every kid that touched the ball did so while imagining the number 18 on their back.
Even at school, the so often silent and stern headmaster, coincidentally named ‘Mr Rooney’ , discussed his mercurial namesake with groups of school kids eager to know if he was related and if he could get us an autograph. In one single sentence he crushed our hopes by denying this was the case. Ultimately, this kid from Croxteth had even the most unlikely of people talking.
I was lucky enough to visit South Africa around this time and I’ll never forget the first newspaper I seen over there. Front AND back had full page pictures of Rooney in the very same kit I was wearing as I looked in awe at this seemingly angelic yet savage teenager who had evidently took the world by storm. Unbelievably, the first thing on the television showed highlights of the 0-0 derby at Anfield as the static depiction of our hope and future became poetry in motion, alas the crossbar selfishly swatting a finger away from the big launch button that would have rocketed Evertonians into Utopia.
Every day I sported my Everton shirt with Rooney on the back. Even my sister, who had never once shown a slither of interest in football, ask and received her very own Rooney kit. I sat amongst the home fans in Old Trafford as he flew into Cristiano Ronaldo like a freight train. As the home fans around me launched from their seats and gnarled their teeth, I turned to my grandad and we smiled. This was our boy, one of us… from the streets and not concerned one single bit who you were or how big your name. Zero respect given as he barged veteran centre halfs out of his way akin to a visceral young Mike Tyson whilst disregarding ever growing win-less records at grounds around the country.
Then one day I stopped in at my nan’s on the way home from school and walked into the living room. The sound of Radio Merseyside met my ears as it still does today. Before I could compute any audio I looked at my grandad whose face was stern as he listened carefully.
“It’s the news all Evertonians had hoped they wouldn’t be hearing; Wayne Rooney has handed in a transfer request.”
My heart nose dived into a free fall. My grandad threw the earphones he had in one hand across the room and muttered an obscenity I can’t remember. I’d sit for hours talking Everton with him and not since his idol, Alan Ball, had a footballer coaxed such raw pride and passion from him than that of discussing Wayne Rooney. I was shell shocked and angry. At that age, footballing politics or finances are meaningless. At that age you think what you’d do in that situation. Well, of course, I’d never even contemplate leaving Everton. Why would anyone? Nothing compared to that dream of climbing the steps as the famous Archibold Leach design came into view and the hairs on your neck rose like those on the Gwladys Street when the ball went out for a corner in the 89th minute as Z Cars rippled through your soul.
Of course, I was too young to see any potential business reasons for the selling of my hero. For a long time, however, it wasn’t just me who smarted. My uncle, grandad, dad, cousin… they all felt that throbbing anger and despair that continued to emit dull pulses of hurt like a relentless tooth ache, even after his departure. I peeled the name from my newly printed Rooney shirt and adamantly demanded I got my original hero’s name, Ferguson, plastered over it. The ghostly outline of the traitor’s name and number that smugly lurked behind Duncan’s was a constant reminder of what could and should of been. My uncle and I punched the air as James Vaughan met Kevin Kilbane’s cross and in single swipe of a boot eradicated Rooney from the history books as the youngest ever goalscorer. I was delighted, I didn’t want Rooney associated with anything Everton anymore and as I watched Joseph Yobo put the ball on a red tinted platter for Wayne to dispatch easily on his return to his former temple, the anger hit fever pitch.
Of course, there’s one very simple reason why we despised him so much after that fateful day I returned from school; he was one of us. We adored him. He was the best in the world and he was one of us, as he famously stated. He was living every single dad’s, son’s, brother’s, uncle’s and friend’s dream in front of our eyes in such a raw, magical and majestic like manner that the thought of losing him was inconceivable as we knew we’d never have it again.
My grandad’s stance turned to one of acceptance in time and he told me he thought he’d be back one day. I dismissed the notion as the deep rooted wound inside fluttered into life. As rumours spread of a potential return bubbled I felt no real emotion. Admittedly, however, when it became a genuine possibility I was surprised to find an even older sensation start to awaken; excitement. For the first time since the day before that visit after school, the name Wayne Rooney produced a different kind of flutter – not one of hurt or betrayal but one of hope and that good kind of nervousness… just as he had done when I was 11.
As a kid I dreamt of him lifting trophies as I cheered from the stands, scoring winners at the Kop end and showing the kind of heart that any of us sitting in Goodison on a Saturday would show given the chance. The reality is, it can still happen. After everything that has gone before, Wayne Rooney can still fulfil the very same dreams we dreamt after he sent Seaman back to London with his tail between his legs. In a time when poetic narrative is almost extinct, Wayne returning ‘home’ undeniably awakens emotions a lot of us haven’t felt since he last donned the blue shirt.
Sure, he’s not the destructive un-caged animal he was from them days but his quality is undeniable. Football is about emotion much more than stats and figures and, although he’s achieved everything he could have domestically and broke countless records, I feel as though that doesn’t matter. Even without all that, the pride he showed and the joy that was so evident in his voice as he described the prospect of his kids watching him in blue and the idea of finally fulfilling his objective of lifting a trophy for his boyhood team, shows above anything else he’s still one of us and that’s a fundamental aspect that, especially today, we yearn for.
A lot of good is happening at our club presently and there’s a renewed sense of hope I haven’t seen since a young 16 year old broke onto the scene. The timing is perfect for both parties and I am excited by the genuine prospect that those feelings and sights we dreamt of 13 years ago could still be a reality. It does seem almost fate-like. It hurt for a long time but as soon as I seen Wayne Rooney holding the Everton shirt, I knew he was home and those feelings when I was 11 awoke from a deep hibernation. I challenge even the most stubborn of blues to deny a wry smile creasing their lips when he scores his first goal on his return.
I mentioned earlier that losing him was inconceivable as we knew we’d never have it – or him- again. Well, as with a lot of things, this new Everton is proving us wrong and we have got it again. I wonder how the nameless phone caller felt when he left and how he feels now. The prospect of walking out of Goodison and, again, hearing that 13 year buzz that has been dormant for so long return is one that, as I speak, produces tingles inside.
I could talk for hours on the marketing possibilities and the like of such a deal but, as fans, over anything else, we want that connection and bond that figures or stats can’t replicate. We want the story. Ultimately, he chose to come back, come home and in doing so has created an air of optimism and pride we denied for years but secretly wanted again I think. Seeing Rooney walk out to Z Cars and hopefully kick start a new era of success for his – our – club has the 11 year old inside me beaming and embracing, once more, the ghostly ROONEY 18 that still dons my old shirt below Duncan.
We ‘remembered the name’ more than anyone else and I think, deep down, he remembered us.
Once a blue always a blue.