Wayne Rooney once suggested that if Liverpool had asked him to sign for them before Everton got their offer in, 22 years ago, then he would have accepted “and been a Red” - though those who were present when he walked through the gates of Melwood for a trial early in 1995 would laugh in your face, if you put that to them.
e was a nine-year-old at the time, doing his stuff for a pub team, Copplehouse - one of a number in the city of Liverpool that ran junior teams - and it was two days after a scout for the red side saw him that he “went along to Melwood”, as he once put it, for an hour-long session with 30 others, wearing his Everton top. “I didn’t hit it off with the Liverpool coaches. They were a bit funny towards me,” he reflected, deadpan, years later. “Perhaps it had something to do with wearing the Everton colours. I didn’t wear the Everton shirt as a defiant gesture. I just always wore it. After school, I lived in my Everton shirt…”
So there are the roots of the tale of twisted blood which is the relationship between Rooney and Liverpool – the side against which the now 31-year-old could become Manchester United’s greatest goalscorer of all time this weekend.
The chances of predicting the goal have become slimmer – 8/1 say some bookmakers – because Rooney’s light has dimmed since the days when Steven Gerrard felt that England would always have a chance in big international games when he was playing. (Only Luis Suarez made Gerrard feel quite the same way.) But it is safe to say that he wants the 250th goal on Sunday so badly that little else will occupy his waking thoughts, and not for entirely positive reasons.
Though Michael Owen recently reflected in ‘Ring of Fire’, Simon Hughes' book which chronicles Liverpool in the 2000s, that the visceral hatred of schoolboy football loyalty fades with time among players, it has simply not been the case for Rooney. Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler were Evertonians who saw that joining Liverpool could bring them success. Rooney could do no such thing.
“It’s funny, but I can’t shake the feeling that I had when I was a kid watching Everton in the stands with my dad: I don’t want to see Liverpool do well,” he said in one of his autobiographies. “I’ve grown up hating them because that’s what football fans do and that feeling has never gone away. I even tell a journalist that I still hate Liverpool and all hell breaks loose in the papers. There are headlines: ‘ROONEY: I HATE KOP.’ But that feeling, that dislike, doesn’t go away.”
Who were the opponents when the 10-year Rooney’s request to be a mascot was finally granted by Everton? Liverpool. Which was the goal Rooney spent hours trying to re-create as a boy? Tony Yeboah’s blinding volley for Leeds against Liverpool in 1995.
The loathing is mutual for many of a Liverpool FC disposition because Rooney compounded being an Evertonian by being, as Sir Alex Ferguson once put it: “one Scouser who immediately became an adopted Mancunian.” But it is more visceral because Rooney has a habit of performing well against the club who were impressed enough to invite him back for a second trial back in 1995, only to find that Everton’s legendary scout Bob Pendleton had made the crucial call to the boy’s father.
There was actually a time by the early years of this decade when Rooney’s goalscoring record at Anfield remained so indifferent - two goals in 18 visits for Everton and United – that Ferguson omitted him for the October 2011 visit, a 1-1 draw. But his record at Old Trafford, where Jürgen Klopp’s side arrive on Sunday, is much better: five in ten games.
It is a materially different, sharper Rooney we see in these Liverpool games. Just observe the way he snaps into tackles on Sunday. There’s a distinctly Merseyside mentality about the mindset; that sense you just can’t afford to lose this one because it will kill you for days afterwards. It was something Gerrard often ruminated on. Rooney fumed when David Moyes kept him on the bench for his first collision with Liverpool in 2002 and when sent on he crashed into Chris Kirkland as they pursued the same ball. Rooney’s hip hurt like hell but he ran it off. “There was no way I was limping off the field at Anfield.” A collision with Jamie Carragher several years later concluded with eight stitches in Rooney’s leg.
There were occasions against Liverpool when Ferguson tried to rein in this tendency. Like the time before a match in January 2005 when Rooney was summoned to his office and found himself “sitting on the big settee,” hearing the manager tell him that he wasn’t “thinking properly on the pitch.” Rooney stayed in the box far more against Rafael Benitez’s side, a few days later, gleefully watched a grasscutter shot of his roll past Jerzy Dudek and danced in front of the Liverpool fans.
He has inhaled the joyous fresh air of his good Liverpool moments. When United eclipsed Liverpool’s 18 titles in 2011, he shaved a number 19 out of his chest hair, took a picture of himself and posted it on Twitter: “a reminder for all the United and Liverpool supporters,” as he later put it.
He’ll also probably tell you that the 2008/09 title win was the most precious to him of all, because Benitez’s title prospects were so genuine that year that Rooney claims he was frequently moody. “It would have been a nightmare to have seen Liverpool win the league,” he said after United had seen them off that Spring.
Rooney didn’t mention the L-word last weekend when, after equalling Bobby Charlton’s record in the FA Cup tie against Reading, the prospect of surpassing it loomed. “We've got two home games coming up so hopefully I can get the next one in one of those games,” he said.
At least there has been enough of a mellowing for his family to turn up in force to see him try to make history. Some of them didn’t make it for that first occasion back in 2002. “They hated Liverpool so much they wouldn’t dream of going to Anfield for the derby,” he reflected after the event.