Colin Harvey is telling a tale about Wayne Rooney’s prodigious talent. It dates back to Harvey’s days coaching England’s future record goalscorer in Everton’s youth team and focuses on one particular day when the then manager, Walter Smith, came to watch Harvey’s Under-18s in a match against Blackburn Rovers.
“The ball drops to Wayne and he’s on the edge of the semi-circle in our half and he controls it in one and – bang – hits the crossbar with the goalkeeper on the edge of the box. It bounces out nearly to the halfway line. Walter’s first-team coach, Archie Knox, said, ‘He didn’t mean that, did he?’ He did. He’d seen the goalkeeper off his line. He didn’t even look up. He must have seen the goalkeeper while the game was going on, then he controlled it in one and with hardly any backlift at all hit it to the goal. He’d have been 14 or 15.”
Harvey had seen and done just about everything at Everton before Rooney’s emergence, making his debut in a European Cup tie against Inter Milan at the San Siro in 1963, winning the English league title as both a player (1970) and first-team coach (1985, 1987), before a spell managing the club. Then came along Rooney, the force of nature who, at 16, inspired Harvey’s youth team to the 2002 FA Youth Cup final shortly before bursting into the first team.
“From the first time I looked at him when he was about 10 or 11, you thought he was always going to be a player,” he remembers. There were no two ways about it. The only thing that was going to stop him was his lifestyle or injury. He had absolutely everything. Not only did he have innate soccer skills but he would listen to what you were saying as well. He had the intelligence to go and play anywhere. He did go in goal sometimes and he was probably the best goalkeeper we had. If you’d said to him, ‘What has the right-back got to do when the ball is in this particular position?’, he could have done it; he could have played anywhere because of his intelligence and ability to take in what you were saying. All I used to do with him was positional sense.
“I remember a youth-team game against Nottingham Forest when he’d have been 14 or 15. Our forward Michael Symes was up against Michael Dawson, who later played for Spurs. Dawson had destroyed him in a previous game so I said to Wayne, ‘Don’t go past Symesie’ and he said, ‘Oh I know that, I remember the game and Dawson murdered Symes in the air. I’ll drop off because I know he’s not going to win any headers.’ He never went past, he just dropped off him.
“We used to get him off school two mornings a week, Tuesday and Thursday, so he used to come into our training ground and then I’d drive him back to school after lunch. At the training ground he’d walk in with his school uniform on while the players were eating lunch and if it had been any other kid, they’d have taken the mickey out of him mercilessly but he used to walk in and no one would say a word to him because he just had that aura about him.”
Rooney’s first Everton league goal came in October 2002 when he was still 16 – an injury-time winner that ended champions Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run. He struck it from 30 yards, having ‘given the eyes’ to England goalkeeper David Seaman – looking one way, then hitting the ball in the other direction. Harvey remembers Rooney practising those strikes on the training pitch every day. “Training would start at 9.30 and I’d put a bag of balls out at 9. There was a goal at the far end and every morning, without a warm-up, he would run out and try to hit the crossbar of the goal at the far end, which he often did. He did it in games too. “Wayne would have a bag of balls and shoot at different areas – he would bend one in that corner and then the other corner. A lot of players give the goalkeeper ‘the eyes’ and bend the ball into the far corner but he used to look to do that and then pull it back into the near corner. He could wrap his foot around the ball and play it in the bottom corner.
“My advice to young players looking to do the same is you don’t need to practise with a goalkeeper at first – do it on your own and get the technique right first. Do it slowly till you get the technique right and then do it quicker and quicker so you can do it at match speed.”
Rooney could score scruffy goals too. Harvey says: “I remember when Wayne was taking corners for Man United, I said, ‘Why is he taking corners?’. I saw Eric Harrison who was a youth-team coach at United and told him, ‘If you put him at the back post he will score a few goals a year from that position’. Gary Lineker [who Harvey coached at Everton too] had it as well. He’d start central, on the edge of the six-yard box, then move away from goal but would finish on the back post where he had a tap-in. Wayne had that as a kid. I remember seeing him score four or five a season doing that. You see ball get flicked on but go out of play just past the far post because there is no one in that area.”