Today in 2004, Wayne Rooney made his hat-trick scoring Manchester United debut against Fenerbahce. Fourteen years? That seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.
Everyone has an opinion on Rooney’s career, whether he exceeded or failed to reach his potential, and whether he left Manchester United at the right time, but the memory of that hat-trick is a more interesting part of his legacy to dwell upon. It was so exhilirating – not because it was of overwhelming quality, but rather it was that rarest of things in football: a player completely justifying the hype surrounding him.
People forget, actually, that even by the time Rooney moved to Old Trafford, the world wasn’t yet sold on his abilities. In spite of the luminous highlights he’d produced at Everton and for England, it was tempting to package him as just another English embellishment; a player we needed and wanted so badly that, in effect, we created for ourselves.
Not so. In hindsight, Rooney’s ascension to the top of the sport looks so obvious and pre-destined – how could he fail when that set of abilities was encased within such a powerful physique? – but it wasn’t really until after Fenerbahce that a consensus arrived. That really was a breathtaking night: the blend of his age, the club he had joined and the stadium and competition he was playing in created this intoxicating swirl of enthusiasm. The moments prior – his performance against Turkey at the Stadium Of Light, those flickers of greatness at Euro 2004 – were confirmed as being part of a permanent reality and not just a cruel tease.
It’s commonly forgotten, also, that Rooney arrived at Manchester United injured and that his debut came after recovering from that broken foot suffered against Portugal the summer before. His hat-trick, then, defied many of the assumed truisms about recovery: that it should be a gradual process and require patience and that players can take months to return to their prior level.
But there was Rooney lighting fireworks on opening night. Irrespective of whatever else he achieved and whether individual supporters felt fulfilled by his career, that remains one of the most incendiary performances of its generation.