The realism may come later. This was about the romance of the return. Wayne Rooney marked his second league debut for Everton with a first competitive goal in the colours of his boyhood club for 13 years, or 4,870 days, or the time it took him to go from teenage tearaway to elder statesman.
The familiar, guttural chant of “Rooney, Rooney” echoed around the historic ground on stroke of half time, the match-winner cheered by fans in new replica shirts bearing his name. A man who was reviled at Goodison Park after joining Manchester United was revered again. On a day of unpredictable scorelines, it seemed Rooney had scripted his comeback in altogether more conventional fashion.
“That was always the worry,” said Stoke manager Mark Hughes, himself a striker with United and Everton on his CV. “He was always going to be part of the story.” Rooney assumed the role of protagonist, headline and difference maker.
“Probably the only chance Everton created in the first half was the quality ball they put into the box for you know who,” rued Hughes. You know who duly took it.
“On a personal level, it was a special moment,” Rooney said. “To play for this football club again was a huge deal for me and to score the winning goal on my first game at Goodison, it doesn’t get much better.”
He had taken a 50 per cent pay cut to rejoin his first club, and Everton had spent £100 million (Dh475m) in the summer, but some things cannot be measured in money alone.
Rooney's first goal on his second Everton debut
His winner contained a certain significance. Everton looked disjointed after their overhaul but duly prevailed. Rooney inherited the departed Romelu Lukaku’s No 10 shirt and took the mantle of the scourge of weaker visitors to Goodison from United’s £75 million man, even if Everton lacked the same pace and incision without the Belgian.
An early drought would have brought a debate about Rooney’s place. A league debut goal prompted praise.
“There was one player in an Everton shirt who was from the first second to the last comfortable on the pitch,” said manager Ronald Koeman. “He made every decision the right one and he scored a great goal from a great cross from Dominic [Calvert-Lewin]. In difficult moments, he showed his experience. That is why we signed Wayne.”
Rooney's first ever goal for Everton
Rooney was invariably involved: sometimes ineffectually, sometimes effectively, occasionally creatively and once decisively. He did not quite imply that past glories will be recaptured, but nor did he seem yesterday’s man.
He has always conformed to the team ethic and his initial impact came defensively. Rooney headed away corners at the near post, Alan Shearer-style, before he got an opportunity to show his aerial ability at the other end. Calvert-Lewin crossed, Rooney hung in the air and looped a header back across into the far corner of Jack Butland’s net.
Koeman could have pronounced himself vindicated; not for recruiting Rooney – one goal is not enough to render his return a success – but instead reproached himself for some distinctly unconventional tactics. The Dutchman had picked a team with a lopsided look, an uneasy compromise seemingly to crowbar Rooney in.
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Calvert-Lewin was nominally a wing-back, in reality a winger. “One time in the game I was happy to see him,” said Koeman, citing the cross. He changed system at half time, branding his initial shape “my fault". Idiosyncratic to the last, the Dutchman then used Calvert-Lewin as a centre forward, with Rooney an ersatz right winger. He could have added an assist as such, releasing Calvert-Lewin with a fine pass. The Stoke debutant Kurt Zouma slid in to make a potentially goal-saving challenge. England's Under 20 World Cup winner was denied again when Butland made parried a drive.
At the other end, the costliest English goalkeeper ever marked his league bow with what Hughes called “an outstanding save". Jordan Pickford thwarted Xherdan Shaqiri in stoppage time, but it was still a win with Rooney’s fingerprints on it.
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