Wayne Rooney has doubts Arsenal can handle ‘pressure’ as he tips Manchester City to win Premier League title race
Wayne Rooney’s life changed forever on October 19, 2002.
Everton was drawing 1-1 against Premier League champion Arsenal, then on a mightily impressive 30-game unbeaten run in England’s top division.
As the game ticked into the 90th minute, the teenage forward, who had been brought on as a substitute by manager David Moyes, controlled a pass from teammate Thomas Gravesen, took a couple of touches, and unleashed a shot that beat Arsenal and England goalkeeper David Seaman to win the match and awaken the soccer world to his talents. At the time Rooney was but five days away from signing a professional contract on his 17th birthday,
“Remember the name! Wayne Rooney!” screamed commentator Clive Tyldesley, which turned out to be as accurate a line as Rooney’s shot.
Rooney went on to win five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown with Manchester United, as well as becoming the club’s record goalscorer, an accolade he also held for the England national team, until Harry Kane overtook his tally in the recent Euro 2024 qualifying game against Italy.
Fast forward to 2023 and life for the 37-year-old Rooney, who is D.C. United’s head coach, has come full circle. This July he will take charge of the MLS All-Star side in his current hometown of Washington D.C. against Arsenal.
“I was frustrated, actually, because I was on the bench for that game. I wanted to start the game and I didn’t,” Rooney, who represented Everton either side of a magnificent 13-year career with Manchester United, recently told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell.
“It felt a bit strange at first, but it was an incredible feeling to score for your boyhood club and your first Premier League goal, but also with it being the winning goal against Arsenal … best team in the country at the time. It was crazy but it’s certainly one of my highlights and best moments, and a goal which I’ll never forget.”
Rooney played for four-time MLS Cup winners D.C. United in 2018/19 – with a game-saving tackle and game-winning assist in the space of about 20 seconds against Orlando City perhaps as impressive as his greatest goals in the Premier League.
Life on the touchline began in a dual player-manager role for lower league English club Derby County in 2020, which turned into a permanent managerial position, before his return to Washington D.C. last year.
By the time Arsenal arrive stateside Mikel Arteta’s side could have secured it first Premier League title since 2004.
“I’ve played in the All-Star Game on both sides, for Manchester United a few years back and then played for the All-Stars against Atletico Madrid,” Rooney notes.
“And obviously with it being Arsenal, it makes me a bit more excited because it’s a challenge. It will be a tough game, but a game which we’ll set up to try and go and win.”
While he’s based thousands of miles away, Rooney remains a keen follower of the Premier League and is enjoying the title race from afar, not least watching Manchester City’s star striker Erling Haaland, who has already plundered 42 goals in his debut season in England.
Rooney says the 22-year-old Norwegian phenom is “incredible …. a player I love watching … he’s going to break quite a few records, that’s for sure.”
However, Rooney is of the opinion that the current Premier League leader might fall short in their quest to wrest the title away from City, even though he admits, “I hope Arsenal do win it.”
“I think City will pip them to it,” Rooney concedes. “It’s going to be intriguing. I think because Arsenal have not been in this position for a long time, and it can be a lot of pressure to go with that.
“Once you start getting into the last 10 games of the season that’s when the real pressure starts. And so I’m really interested to see if they can sustain what they’ve been doing all season.”
Rooney is even more forthright in his views on Manchester United.
Still without a league championship since Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager in 2013, a decade in the relative wilderness is arguably over thanks to the appointment of Dutchman Erik ten Hag, who has already secured silverware in his first season at Old Trafford – the League Cup – and looking likely to achieve qualification for the Champions League.
A serious challenge on the Premier League title would not be a surprise next season, and Rooney isn’t the first person to link Ten Hag’s decisiveness in the way he handled Cristiano Ronaldo with an uptick in results.
“I suppose he got what he wanted,” says Rooney about the manner in which the Portuguese superstar left Manchester United by mutual consent last November, just a week after giving an explosive TV interview detailing his frustrations at the club.
“For Manchester United, it was important to move on as quick as possible from that and really refocus on the group of players who were there and wanted to be there. And I think that’s where Ten Hag has done a really good job in refocusing the players and getting them in a position where they are, obviously, comfortably in the top four, and also winning the [League] Cup.”
But did this diminish Ronaldo’s status as a legend at the club in any way?
“No, I think what he’s done for Manchester United is great,” Rooney responds. “And he’s won Premier League titles, won the Champions League, scored many goals.
“So I think certainly for the fans and certainly for the players, his former teammates who played with him from my time especially, we’ll never forget what he did for Manchester United. Because in my eyes, he’ll always be a club legend and it’s a shame the way it ended of course this time round. But I don’t think that takes anything away from his legacy at the club.”
Legends come and go, and although United’s main man up front – Marcus Rashford – isn’t in the same tier of megastar as Rooney or Ronaldo just yet, the 25-year-old’s revival this season for his club has been impressive.
And Rooney is rooting for Rashford, who has notched 120 goals, to break his record of 253 for the Red Devils.
“I think we’ve all known about Marcus, even before he was in the first team, coming through the academy. He’s a top player and he fell off a little bit over the last 18 months especially. And again, I think Ten Hag has come in and really simplified it for him,” Rooney states.
“I’m not a player who sits on records and hopes no one breaks them. I hope he does it and the reasons why [with] him being a Manchester lad coming through the academy.
“I think it’s a great story and it means he’s been very successful with the club and been there a long time and scored a lot of goals if he does do it. So I hope he does. I think he certainly has the ability and the capabilities to be able to do it. I’m sure, or I hope, sometime in the next few years I’ll be able to pass that mantle onto him.”