As an illustration of just how much English football changed during Wayne Rooney's 13 seasons at Manchester United, let us consider the following thought experiment:
If, in 2017, United were coming off the back of a season in which they'd released their brilliant, inspirational, terrifying captain after he called half their team useless. If they'd bombed out of the Champions League and finished 8 points off the title-winners. And if they spent the summer replacing their leading striker and top goalscorer with a promising defensive midfielder from Tottenham and nobody else. How do we think Twitter would be feeling?
2006 was, blessedly, a quieter time. The transfer window hadn't yet fully metastatised into the heavily scrutinised, breathlessly commentated, minute-to-minute monstrosity that it is now. Liveblogging was in its infancy, comments sections were relatively new. And Twitter, for its part, hadn't even had its SXSW breakthrough. The rituals of transfer market entitlement and euphoria — "Announce Player", #WelcomePlayer, "Announce Another Player" — were far in the future.
All that said, there was much concern, both in the press and among the fans: Rob Smyth, for example, came in off the long run for the Guardian in quite some style. And with some justification, even if subsequent events rather let him down. The hideous Glazer takeover had split the fanbase in half; Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic had looked extremely shaky since arriving in January; and a young Michael Carrick — "a Pirlo where a Gattuso was needed," as Smyth put it — was somehow to replace Roy Keane.
Up front, meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, both not far past 20, were somehow to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy, one of the finest finishers Old Trafford has ever seen. Which seemed impossible, and not just on the grounds of age.
The 2006 World Cup had ended for Rooney with a red card for stamping on Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho, and while there was no doubt that he deserved to go, the sight of Ronaldo talking urgently to the referee, then winking towards his bench, gave the British press everything they needed to conclude that their relationship was irreparably damaged.
Rooney's version of events is slightly different:
Everyone immediately decided that Ronaldo and I were the best of enemies, and his wink would spell trouble for United in the coming months. I knew what was in store, so when I bumped into him in the tunnel after the game I gave him a heads up. "The fans will be going mad over this one," I said. "They’ll be trying to make a big deal of it, so we’ll just have to get on with things as normal because there will be talk all summer."
If there was animosity, it was quickly washed away in a flood of goals. United began their campaign with a 5-1 shredding of Fulham — Rooney scored two, Ronaldo one — that installed them immediately at the top of the table. There they would remain for the entire season, bar a couple of weeks in September, and by the end of the season they were six points clear of Chelsea in second place. More illustratively, they had scored 19 more goals than the West Londoners.
Throughout the season, Rooney was rather overshadowed by his attacking counterpart. It was Ronaldo who exploded in the second half of the season, Ronaldo who scored that late winner against Fulham, and Ronaldo who took home every individual award going.
Yet both players ended the season on 23 goals, and Rooney was particularly important in United's run to the final of the FA Cup, scoring twice to beat Portsmouth in the fourth round and twice again in the semi-final against Watford. Just a shame neither of them could manage anything in the final, a deathly dull 1-0 loss to Chelsea.
Beyond the title, however, what was most encouraging about United's season was the team's reemergence as a force in the Champions League. This, after all, had been the motivation behind Van Nistelrooy's request to leave in 2005: that Rooney and Ronaldo were too callow to spearhead a successful European campaign. Yet here they were, not far into their 20s, leading the team to that 8-3 aggregate win over Roma. Rooney scored once in the hilarious 7-1, but his goal in the first leg, which United lost 2-1, might have been the more important. Had Roma come out of that game with a clear lead, who knows what the mood might have been for the return.
He was at it again in the semi-final. Having taken an early lead against AC Milan at Old Trafford, United's defence went full clownshoes at the sight of Kaka, who scored twice to give the Italians the lead. But Rooney restored United's advantage, first poking home a brilliant Paul Scholes clipped through ball, then lashing home at the near post from 20 yards.
Didn't do much good for the second leg, sadly. United got thumped 3-0. But notice was served. Rooney and Ronaldo might not have been old enough, but they were good enough, they were title winners, and they could inconvenience the best in Europe.
2006-07: 55 games, 23 goals, first Premier League title