Wayne Rooney has been the subject of more media coverage in his fledgling career than many seasoned professionals accumulate in an entire footballing lifetime and with good reason.
Hailed by the late George Best "as good as anything you've ever seen" and blessed with a talent that one "cannot buy and no coach can teach" according to Thierry Henry, Rooney has lived up to all the early hype and made himself indispensable at both club and international level for Manchester United FC and England. However, prior to his Premiership debut for Everton FC against Tottenham Hotspur FC in August 2002 and 'that' wicked, dipping volley past Arsenal FC's David Seaman two months later, Rooney was making waves in European football but far from the glamour of Old Trafford.
The Gladsaxe Stadion in Søborg may be famous for little more than being the home of Danish second division side Akademisk Boldklub, but it will always have a special place in the memory of the 711 spectators present. On 29 April 2002 England came up against the Netherlands in the second game of their UEFA European Under-17 Championship campaign. Among their number was Rooney, aged just 16 years and 187 days and the youngest player in the squad.
Two days earlier Rooney had run Finland's defence ragged for an hour in a hard-fought 3-2 victory, but here he truly announced his arrival in the tournament after 32 minutes. Receiving the ball 35 metres out, a neat sidestep took him past a bamboozled Dutch marker before Rooney's drilled shot left goalkeeper Theo Brack helpless. A great goal, blending power and ingenuity, and a sign of things to come in Denmark.
A goalless draw against the hosts in Hvidovre put England safely through to the quarter-finals, and Rooney was on top form again in the last eight. This time he showed his heading ability, glancing Stacy Long's cross past Igor Baletic to seal a 1-0 victory against Yugoslavia and earn his side a semi-final berth. Rooney could do little to halt the march of a rampant Switzerland in the last four but he did hint at another, more tempestuous side of his game, collecting a yellow card late on in the 3-0 defeat against the eventual winners. That loss left England deflated but the third-place play-off against Spain still gave Rooney an opportunity to bow out of the competition with a bang. The sublime hat-trick against a highly-regarded Spanish team took his finals goal tally to five and offered a convincing argument that he was indeed ready for the big time.
What really made Rooney stand out, even at that early stage, was his sheer physical presence. Against opponents only just emerging from the ravages of puberty and yet to fully develop the physical side of their game, Rooney's broad shoulders and barrel chest made him hard to miss, and even harder to mark. Of course, he went on to become England's youngest ever goalscorer at senior level and claimed a remarkable hat-trick on his UEFA Champions League debut, but sometimes it is just nice to look back and remember that, in a competition that featured current stars like Arsenal duo Gaël Clichy and Philippe Senderos, Ajax FC's Hedwiges Maduro and future United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney was still head and shoulders above the best of the rest.
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