He has scored 53 goals in an England shirt and appeared for the Three Lions on more than 100 occasions but Everton’s Wayne Rooney insists his appearance at the 2002 UEFA European Under-17 Championship was the launchpad for his career.
Rooney burst onto the Premier League scene for Everton with a memorable curling 25-yard effort against Arsenal in October 2002, but he had already made his mark earlier that year at U17 Euro.
He was named Golden Player at the 2002 tournament as England reached the semi-finals, and the striker, now the nation’s all-time leading scorer, believes the competition was crucial in his development.
Sixteen years on from his U17 heroics, Rooney revealed he was wearing the boots of former Toffees midfielder Paul Bracewell throughout the competition in Denmark, which included a hat-trick against Spain in the third-place play-off.
Speaking at St. George’s Park as the honorary ambassador for the upcoming U17 Euro, which England are hosting for the first time from May 4-20, Rooney suggested a surprise call-up for the Everton first-team almost scuppered his goalscoring exploits with the Young Lions.
“Just before the tournament I was on the bench for Everton’s first team and I didn’t get in,” said Rooney, an FA Cup, Champions League and five-time Premier League winner with Manchester United.
“And then when I got picked in the U17 squad, I was actually due to play for Everton against Blackburn.
“I went away with the U17s and at the time it was a frustrating moment. But looking back it was fantastic for my career and a great time to play and try and develop yourself as a footballer.
“I remember throughout the 2002 tournament I wore Paul Bracewell’s boots. It was great – to wear them and become top goal scorer was terrific.
“There are things you can show in those games which will make your club manager stand up and think ‘he’s got something, I’m going to give him a go’ in the first team.
“I remember the 2002 tournament. We got to the semi-finals and it was a great experience.
“It’s a time in your career where you are still developing, you really enjoy it and you enjoy the different challenges.
“These tournaments can catapult you onto the next level and break into the first team at your club.
“And it’s exciting for the fans coming to these tournaments – they can look out for players from their clubs, players from other clubs, and which of those players can go on to become the next superstar and the next big name in football.”
Rooney scored more than 180 goals for Manchester United in 393 appearances, winning an avalanche of silverware with the Red Devils before moving back to boyhood club Everton in the summer.
He was at St. George’s Park to perform the official draw for the upcoming UEFA European Under-17 Championship, which saw Steve Cooper’s Young Lions drawn in Group A with Switzerland, Italy and Israel.
They kick off the tournament against Israel at Chesterfield FC on Friday 4 May (7pm), face Italy at Walsall FC on Monday 7 May (3pm) before taking on the Swiss at Rotherham on Thursday 10 May (7pm). Burton Albion, Loughborough and St. George’s Park are also hosting matches.
And 32-year-old Rooney believes the experiences the Young Lions will face on home soil next month will be invaluable to their development.
Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba and Mario Götze are just some of the famous names to have appeared at this level in the past, with the competition acting as the perfect platform for young players to showcase their talents.
England, who won the European Under-17 title in 2010 and 2014 and finished runners-up to Spain in 2017 before beating the same opposition in the U17 World Cup Final in India last October, qualified automatically for the tournament as hosts.
Rooney is convinced the competition could uncover the next England superstar destined to make his mark for Gareth Southgate’s senior side.
“Playing in front of home support in England is something all footballers want to do – certainly in my case,” added Rooney, who has 11 goals in 29 Toffees appearances this term.
“It also helps you see where you are [as a player] and try and get into that rhythm of playing tournament football – it’s not easy and the more experienced you are at it, the better.
“You never know, you might get someone who comes through and becomes a superstar and the fans can say ‘I was there that day, he did well for England in this tournament’.
“You have seen in previous years, with the likes of Spain and Germany – the young team won trophies and people were asking questions why England weren’t.
“But you can see that there’s progress being made, players are getting better, coaches are getting better and that’s only good for English football.”
See the stars of tomorrow in the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, 4-20 May 2018. Visit www.TheFA.com/U17Euro for tickets and further information