CRISTIANO Ronaldo had a dramatic Manchester United debut at 18 and, also 18, Lionel Messi won a standing ovation at the Nou Camp in his first Champions League game. Yet does anything really compare? For George Best it was “as good as anything you’ve ever seen.”

September 28, 2004. A clear autumn evening. Old Trafford. Four weeks short of his 19th birthday, four weeks after a £27m move from Everton, Wayne Rooney began for Manchester United and as a Champions League player, unforgettably. United 6 Fenerbahce 2, three goals for the kid, each emphatic and spectacular. It was a ‘Kennedy moment’ of sport.

Rooney hadn’t played since June 24, against Portugal, when a cracked metatarsal cut him off in full and fearless flow at Euro 2004. He had no pre-season and spent his first fortnight at United working with physios.

“It was frustrating,” he recalled. “After, I was training with the first team. I actually thought I was fit enough to play at the weekend but Alex Ferguson said to wait, that I was going to start in the Champions League. Looking back, I’m happy it worked out that way.”

There was pent-up energy. And anxiety. “I was nervous,” Rooney said. “To this day I get nervous before games, more the night before.

“You’re thinking how you’re going to play, how the opponents are going to play. Some nights you struggle – well I do anyway – to sleep when you want. I’m normally an hour or two later before I drop off.”

He’d strolled out, chewing gum, collar of his new No8 United jersey torn. The gum was “nerves” and “the top was a bit tight and I tried to pull it to stretch it and it ripped.

“It was strange walking out as a United player, having been at Everton since I was nine, but it was exciting. Just standing listening to the Champions League music was a great feeling.” Confidence surged when Frank De Bleeckere, the referee, signalled kick off. “When you’re actually on the pitch, nerves have gone,” Rooney said.

Sir Alex Ferguson helped. He reminded the youngster of defensive duties “but he said when you win the ball just go and express yourself and I think that’s where Alex Ferguson was such a great manager. He told the players to express themselves.”

Fenerbahce were decent, Turkish champions, first in their league, with Rustu Recber, Tuncay Sanli, Pierre Van Hooijdonk and former Brazil captain, Alex, in their ranks. They’d conceded only six times in eight games. United, fifth in the Premier League, had been struggling for goals.

Enter Rooney. Goal one: played through by Ruud Van Nistelrooy he swept a sweet left-footed shot over Rustu. “I saw the keeper rushing out and just wanted a good connection and to lift it to get it over him. That settled me,” Rooney said. “I wasn’t match fit enough for 90 minutes and the plan was to give me 60. So I was thinking I’ve got 60 minutes to do something, which was why it was great to make an impact so early.”

Goal two: on a counterattack he took Giggs’ pass, stepped inside Fenerbahce’s captain, Umit Ozat, and drilled home,  right-footed, from 20 yards. “It was a nice finish and one you work on at the training ground, the ball coming across your body and shooting,” Rooney said. At half-time, United 3-0 ahead, “I was thinking ‘please don’t take me off, give me a chance to get the third goal.’

“The lads were made up but I actually remember Alex Ferguson moaning and having a go at us because there were things we weren’t doing. So that was strange, I wasn’t used to that. I just wanted to get back out and get that third.”

Goal three: a free kick nicely positioned for Giggs and his left foot. Rooney had other ideas. “I was confident. I said to Giggsy ‘I fancy it, I’ll score.’ He said ‘fine, take it’ and once I said I’d score…I had to.” It curled in and “I went and punched the corner flag. Still, now, I don’t really think about what I’m going to do when I score – something just comes.”

In the dressing room Albert Morgan, United’s kit man, got players to sign the match ball for Rooney. “The lads were buzzing but I remember just sitting there quietly. I was delighted, but wasn’t saying anything, I was just trying to take it in. It was a weird atmosphere in some ways,” Rooney said.

In post match interviews “I could see [Ferguson]  trying to ease it down a little.” The next day’s training “was business at usual. We had Middlesbrough next and were preparing for that. It’s how I like it. I don’t think there’s any point sitting there patting yourself on the back.”

Football’s greatest debut? The debutant didn’t dwell on it. “I was staying in a hotel, still waiting to get a house in Manchester,” said Rooney. “Me and my wife went back with two friends and had some food and went to bed. The hotel didn’t have Sky so I couldn’t see any highlights and didn’t see any the next day.”

A further 445 games and 219 goals for United have followed but first impressions count. “Being a lad from Liverpool…I was thinking ‘how are the United fans going to take to a Scouser? I wanted to prove myself early on,” Rooney said. He did.

Written by Jonathan Northcroft (Sunday Times football correspondent)  Twitter – @JNorthcroft

Copyright 2014 Stoneygate 48 Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source.

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