| Everton’s Wayne Rooney scores against Newcastle United in Liverpool Sunday. (Reuters)
Only eight Premiership starts into his professional career and already it is becoming difficult to find new superlatives for Wayne Rooney. A hero for England, a hero for Everton, the 17-year-old’s life has been turned on its head.
He woke up Sunday to see his private life had suddenly become a source of great fascination. Tabloid pictures of his girlfriend strolling to school accompanied snaps of them going into a restaurant.
The football Rooney can handle, but intrusions on this scale were another thing entirely. How would this affect his performance and concentration on the pitch for a game that had deep implications, not just for Everton’s faint Champions League hopes, but for the Premiership race in general'
The answer is, not one iota. Against Newcastle yesterday, Rooney, if anything, was energised even further by the adulation and attention, by the added expectation to deliver something special.
It all added up to heartbreak for Newcastle, who had been clinging on brilliantly to vague championship hopes. Yesterday’s defeat leaves them right up against it. Their manager, Sir Bobby Robson, admitted as much afterwards.
Six points behind Arsenal and Manchester United now, the St James’ Park dream may have to wait another year. That adds up to quite a bit of waiting, considering Newcastle have not won the title since 1927. And nobody deserves success more than the knowledgeable Toon Army.
In fairness, Robson and his team have been making conciliatory noises all season, insisting that, for the moment, they are nowhere near the class and strength of their rivals. True, maybe, but a win against Everton and the race was truly on, given that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side are the next to visit.
Not only that, Newcastle’s run-in after the United game is an inviting list of teams either doomed to relegation or safe in mid-table. It would be no surprise to see them take maximum points from this five-match sequence.
That is why Sunday’s defeat would have been a real hammer blow, not so much to the likes of Jermaine Jenas and Kieron Dyer, youngsters with plenty more attempts in them, but to the more senior Newcastle players who can, in the distance, see the exit door. Still not completely out of it, admittedly, but these players — the likes of Alan Shearer and Gary Speed — will know that a marvellous opportunity just got a little slimmer.
You cannot choose the year, you cannot pick your moment. Sometimes the chance presents itself and you have to grab it. Manchester United know all about that. In a season that has contained more than its fair share of low points, United are back in it, big time, with momentum on their side.
Arsenal will be sensing that, after a lame display at Aston Villa. The champions desperately need the speedy return of Martin Keown and Ashley Cole, without whom they never look entirely secure in defence.
Rooney found that out at Highbury a couple of weeks back and continued his goalscoring run Sunday to set the ball rolling.