Manchester United's Wayne Rooney celebrates his goal against Fenerbahce in their Champions League group D soccer match at Old Trafford, Manchester, September 28, 2004.

Celebrating Wayne Rooney’s iconic Manchester United debut hat-trick

Wayne Rooney gave perhaps football’s best example of the idea that good things coming to those who wait when he put Fenerbahce to the sword on his Manchester United debut.

The summer of 2004 must have felt unbearably long for Rooney. After bursting onto the international tournament scene, he knew the injury sustained in England’s European Championships exit against Portugal would keep him out for some time.

A move from Everton to Manchester United in August meant his return to action would be in a different shirt, but question marks remained over how he’d cope with a first big lay-off since his breakthrough.

Naturally, for someone who had shown no hesitation at any point in his young career, he answered them as soon as he could.

“There is huge pressure on Rooney because he is not a teenager who will come in and people will wait for him to deliver – he is going to go into that team and be expected to make a real impact,” Alan Hansen said after the completion of the move.

“One thing is certain. It will be a lot harder for him to come into the Manchester United team now than it would have been if they had their side of four years ago. There will be much more expected and required of him now than there would have been then.”

Indeed, United won just one of their first five league games and needed a second-half double from Ruud van Nistelrooy to come back from two goals down against Lyon in their Champions League group stage opener.

It must have been tempting to rush Rooney back from his broken metatarsal, especially when United needed last-gasp goals to rescue league points against Blackburn and Bolton.

Instead, though, he was held back until the home European opener against Turkish champions Fenerbahce. It was worth the wait.

Fener had won their first game, edging past Sparta Prague thanks to Pierre van Hooijdonk’s early goal, and boasted several members of the Turkey squad which had reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup.

They had not traditionally been good travellers – a win at Old Trafford in 1996 was their most recent Champions League away victory at the time – but they weren’t expected to be pushovers.

However, after Ryan Giggs settled the nerves with an early header, Rooney took centre stage. As he was slipped through by Van Nistelrooy, it was clear the burst of pace that had laid France to waste at the Euros had never gone away.

On-loan Barcelona goalkeeper Rustu stood in Rooney’s way, but the goal might as well have been empty, such was the certainty with which the England forward struck the ball. For a second, it looked as though not even the net would be able to get in its way.

The Rooney we saw in Portugal was an unstoppable force, but it’s reasonable to think a broken foot might go some way towards stopping him in his tracks, or at least adding an element of hesitation to his play for the first game back.

Back then, we didn’t know if Rooney was a mere breakout star or someone who would still be at the top of the game a decade later. He clearly didn’t want to give us any time to keep the former as an option.

The second goal was dispatched with just as much confidence as the first, a low, drilled effort from just outside the box which cleared its own path towards the bottom corner like a long-distance runner forcing his way through a gap on the inside as he enters the home straight.

There’s a long tradition of debate around temporarily giving penalty duties to a player on a hat-trick, but the same rarely applies to free-kicks.

With Giggs perhaps a more likely taker in normal circumstances, at least compared to a youngster playing his first ever game for the club, the Welshman could have been forgiven for pulling rank and stepping up.

However, there was a sense that Rooney, powered by his own earlier strikes, was simply drawn to the ball like a moth to a flame. There was no chance of anyone getting in his way, just as there was no chance of anyone getting in the way once he did step up.

With David Beckham long departed and Cristiano Ronaldo not yet the all-conquering set-piece force he would become later in life, it was a rare instance where giving the responsibility to the man who ‘wanted it the most’ was actually solid football science.

There’s something beautiful about how the crowd rises in unison with the arc of the ball, as if they’re dragging it towards a destination it would not otherwise occupy. Even if Rooney didn’t already know it, this provided him with the certainty that thousands were right behind him in his efforts to reach the pinnacle.

United ended up adding two late goals for a 6-2 victory, but it wasn’t a magical solution to all of their woes in front of goal. Nor did it have that effect on Rooney, though his treble did at least buy him some goodwill until his next goal four games later.

Alan Smith was the only United player to score in the next 300+ minutes of football, but Rooney’s next impact – a goal and a won penalty to end Arsenal’s long unbeaten run – was almost certainly more important to the club’s medium and longer-term future.

However, while some elements can have an obvious, tangible impact, others grow by virtue of their mystique.

Every team will have its moments where momentum and narrative shift. But a teenage debutant scoring a hat-trick on his debut under the lights? That doesn’t come along every year.

By Tom Victor 

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