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Friday, Dec. 12, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Everton's 'Roonaldo' having growing pains


LONDON -- From having the world at his feet Wayne Rooney is now the recipient of boots up the backside as the Everton striker attempts to fulfill the potential he showed last season.

Christopher Davies

When Rooney, at 17 years and 317 days, became England's youngest-ever goal scorer following his strike against Macedonia 15 months ago a star, we thought, had arrived.

The Thesaurus did not have enough alternatives to "great" as scribes searched for superlatives to describe the precocious talent that was Rooney.

The nicknames included "Roonaldo" and "Roodinho" but as 2003 draws to an end, Everton is battling against relegation while England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson must be concerned the teenager is not a regular starter for one of the Premiership's most ordinary teams.

In his 10 starts, Rooney has been substituted five times, the last occasion at halftime in a 0-0 draw against Manchester City on Sunday. A match that, being polite, was not the sort of game from which you kept your ticket stub to say "I was there."

Manager David Moyes clearly has his hands full with Rooney and said after the City game: "He is a great boy who is doing terrifically well. We are very pleased with him. He's a special talent and is only 18. We are trying to nurture that talent and bring him on as much as we possibly can."

It is part of football management to praise a player when he is going through a bad spell -- Rooney has scored just one goal this season -- and bring him down to earth when things are going well.

A penny for Moyes' REAL thoughts would be money very well spent.

Rooney's profile has inevitably brought outside interests that Moyes could do without. In September, Rooney landed a part in Jude Law's new movie Alfie but had to limp on the set after injuring an ankle in the previous match.

There has been a "life story" book released while his 18th birthday bash at Aintree racecourse in October saw Atomic Kitten and Blue perform, not the preparations Moyes would have preferred for the match against Aston Villa.

Rooney and girlfriend Colleen McLoughlin, whose name is tattooed on his arm, signed a £500,000 deal with Coca-Cola to appear in pre-Euro 2004 advertisements.

Moyes was far from happy when Rooney flew to Madrid recently for a filming session, the manager preferring the striker to rest on his day off, rather than fly to and from the Spanish capital.

"I want the boy to concentrate on his football," said Moyes. "It's been a really big climb for Wayne in a short period of time. It's important you don't lose your roots, your values or sight of the reason why you got there in the first place."

The good life has earned Rooney the tag "Wayne Ballooney." The diet Everton have laid down for Rooney -- 178 cm and around 76 kg -- probably does not include visits to the local chip shop that seem irresistible, while Kenny Po, the manager of the player's local Chinese restaurant, was quoted as saying his favorite client will "eat anything off the menu . . . he loves it all."

Though he does not possess the good looks of David Ginola or the eloquence of, well, just about any other player, Rooney must be one of the highest-paid 18-year-olds in the world at £25,000 a week.

Add to this scenario stories of slashed tires, paintball attacks on his home and threats made against his agent Paul Stretford by underworld criminals, and you have all the ingredients of a player who is struggling to come to terms with achieving too much too quickly.

On the field Rooney has collected more yellow cards than goals and Moyes is finding it increasingly difficult to talk rationally about a player whom many now doubt will realize his potential.

After one Rooney substitution Moyes said: "I also took off Thomas Gravesen, why doesn't anyone ask me about that?"

More recently: "I don't want to talk about him again." Note the "again" -- a clear sign of exasperation.

From being the "Next Big Thing," at 18, Rooney is already showing signs of burnout. The problem is while most kids of Rooney's age are allowed to develop in the academies away from the public glare, the Everton player has become a victim of his own talent and is learning his trade on the biggest of all domestic stages.

Rooney, who admitted "I haven't played well this season," needs guidance, understanding and for his profile to be lowered several notches, impossible in an era where football stars are elevated to household names before they have even left home.

Eriksson has penciled in Rooney to partner Liverpool's Michael Owen at Euro 2004 and as people the players are chalk and cheese.

Owen's family life seems far more stable and the striker has been able to handle the stardom that started with a stunning goal against Argentina at France '98.

The worries surrounding Owen are the injuries that never seem to go away, but apart from his liking for the odd flutter on the horses the Liverpool player has kept away from the negative side of the game.

Some believe Rooney must leave Merseyside to further his career, but he is not the type of lad who gives the impression he could settle elsewhere, needing the "protection" of his family.

It may sound ridiculous to suggest that at 18 Rooney' career is at the crossroads but at the moment his progress is on hold.

THE IDEA by Sky Sports television to reunite FC Cologne old boys Tony Woodcock and Rainer Bonhof was an odd one.

Woodcock is now an agent, while Bonhof is the coach of Scotland's Under-21 side and after some light-hearted banter interviewer Jim White asked Woodcock: "So who was best man at whose wedding then?"

"Well," replied Woodcock. "I don't know whether this is the place, but Rainer was best man at my second marriage.

"Sadly, it didn't work out, but Rainer still keeps in touch with my ex and that might have been the reason why the marriage didn't work."

OK, right, moving swiftly on . . .

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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