IT was on October 19, 2002 that most of the world first became aware of Wayne Rooney. A stunning, last-minute winner against Arsenal had the Sky Television commentator breathlessly exhorting viewers to 'remember the name', of the homegrown Everton youngster who, five days short of his 17th birthday, had just become the youngest goalscorer in Premier League history.
That particular record has since been eclipsed but there have been plenty of other milestones to take its place on YouTube or in the Rooney family scrapbook.
Less than two years after that first goal, Rooney was on his way to Manchester United in a £30 million transfer that made him the most expensive teenager in football history.
His displays at Euro 2004, where he made the team of the tournament despite England getting no further than the quarterfinals, had inevitably inflated the fee, but Rooney quickly ensured that there would never be any quibbling about value for money at Old Trafford. A Champions League hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his debut for the club was symptomatic of Rooney's ability to produce his best at the moments when he is under the greatest scrutiny.
That is what England will count on in South Africa and it is a quality built on firm foundations: a rare level of technique allied to an irrepressible competitive drive that Rooney, with maturity, has learned to harness without shedding the combustible edge that made him a promising boxer in his youth. Rooney had been on United's radar from an early age, having memorably scored six goals for Everton's under-9's in a match against their United counterparts.
"There was one that stood out," recalls Paul McGuinness, now the manager of the United academy. "It was basically the classic overhead kick, the perfect bicycle kick, which for a kid of eight or nine years old was really something special."
For Fabio Capello, the man charged with getting the best out of Rooney in an England shirt, the 24-year-old is marked out as much by his ability to inspire those around him as by his own technical quality.
"He is very important because when the team is falling asleep, he is the one who can give them a boost," the England coach said. "Sometimes it is possible to put the other team to sleep, to dupe it, and know you can score any time because they are not dangerous.
"But Rooney reminds me of (Franco) Baresi and Raul. They say 'we have to do something'."
In the early years of his career it was widely assumed that Rooney's deftness in exploiting the spaces created by a partner in attack meant he was destined to make his name as a second striker, a kind of muscular, English version of Roberto Baggio.
For the national team it is in that kind of role that he has most often flourished, whether in tandem with the pace and finishing ability of a Michael Owen or the physical presence of a big centre forward in the Emile Heskey mould.
But it is as a lone striker that he thrived in the just-finished season, plundering 33 goals in all competitions from a position in which he rarely dropped too far off the shoulder of the last defender.
A mature desire for goals has replaced a teenage infatuation with the ball that would result in Rooney regularly being spotted foraging for possession deep inside his own half.
"Giving him the direct role has given him an appetite to be in the box all the time," United boss Sir Alex Ferguson observed after Rooney had, with four months to spare, passed the 20-goal target he had been set for the season. He still has moments when he goes into other areas of the pitch but he is choosing those moments more maturely. The main reason he is scoring the goals is because he is in the right place at the right time. That is what good goalscorers do."
Rooney has matured off the pitch as well. Now married to his childhood sweetheart Colleen, he became a father for the first time in November with the arrival of baby son Kai. The occasional nightclub scuffles that marked his first couple of years in Manchester are now a fading memory.
Capello and England fans will fret about the possibility of their star player, who has been recently hampered by groin and ankle problems, suffering a more serious injury.
Rooney though is adamant that his end-of-season niggles are no more than that and that he will be firing on all cylinders once more by the time England kick off their campaign, against the United States, on June 12. As entire nation will be hoping he is telling the truth. — AFP