The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Boy wonders will never cease

Every now and again a boy wonder comes along and hits you straight between the eyes, as if to state: ‘I’m here to stay’. The first sight of Diego Maradona is something I shall never forget: at a sun-drenched Hampden Park in 1979, some 60,000 Scots took to jeering their team’s every touch of the ball, so anxious were they that it should spend as much time as possible in the enthralling company of the young Argentine. Mind you, I can also remember, sharp and clear as the November night on which I saw it, the first senior appearance of Phil Hawker.

Unlike Maradona or Wayne Rooney, Hawker was a defender. But in 1980, when still a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, he made such an elegant job of subduing Martin O’Neill of Nottingham Forest that Jim Smith, Birmingham’s manager at the time, was moved to describe his left-back’s debut as “the best I have ever seen at any level”. Emboldened by this high-quality endorsement of my own suspicion, I wrote an article hailing Hawker as a prospective English answer to Franz Beckenbauer. To the credit of my colleagues, they never mentioned it again as Hawker, having played just 33 more League matches for Birmingham, moved down a couple of divisions to find his level at Walsall.

By and large, though, true class is easily identifiable in the raw state. Jimmy Greaves was a scintillating 17-year-old for Chelsea; George Best the same age when Manchester United fans realised they had something special on their glowing hands (ditto Ryan Giggs) and Michael Owen, at 18, made the most dramatic impact on a World Cup of any teenager since Pele in 1958. Rooney comes with all the basic equipment — when you have pace, power, play with your head up and can stroke goals past Arsenal from 20 yards, you are entitled to believe you have a chance — but no guarantee.

To me, he looks a bit chubby: a point I was able to put to one of football’s most impressive slimmers last week. “The only thing that would worry me,” said Ron Atkinson, “is the amount of publicity he’s getting. Yes, he’s a stocky lad, but this low centre of gravity can be helpful and Rooney does remind me of Kenny Dalglish. The way he tried to chip David Seaman, for instance — I thought that was even better than his goal.”

Atkinson’s predecessor as Manchester United manager, the venerable Dave Sexton, listed the traps in store for Rooney and, while some of them sounded more like prizes — “girls, drink, money, fame, choice of friends” — the truth is that England’s latest fantasy is by no means certain to survive, despite the nurture Everton’s intelligent manager, David Moyes, is sworn to provide. “It’s a personal thing,” said Sexton. “They either come through or they don’t. David Beckham has — in spades. Michael Owen too.”

The most tragic underachievement was not that of Best, or Paul Gascoigne, or even Doncaster’s Alick Jeffrey, who at 17 had played for England at every level below senior but suffered fractures of his right leg, then left leg and, in a car crash, his skull. It concerned Duncan Edwards, who perished in the Munich air crash. A cornerstone of United at 16 and England at 18, he died at 21, already a giant, with apparently limitless capacity: having made himself two-footed, Edwards had represented his country at centre-half, centre-forward and in a variety of midfield roles.

Edwards, while big, was all muscle at Rooney’s age. Not that Rooney’s shape bothered Sexton unduly. “Maradona was stocky,” he pointed out, “and so was Ferenc Puskas. I remember, before the Hungarians won 6-3 at Wembley, they’d been loosening up outside and Jimmy Andrews, a West Ham player at the time, came in laughing and said ‘One of them’s a little fat bloke — it’s going to be a walkover for England’.”

Times change, of course, and so it seems with the required standard of dedication. That is a matter for Rooney, his family and his club.

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