There is, somewhere, an alternative universe where Manchester United balked at Wayne Rooney's asking price, and the most exciting prospect in English football looked back at his burned bridges, took a deep breath, and moved to Newcastle.
In our world, Newcastle's 04/05 season was, broadly speaking, complete bobbins. Having finished fifth in 03/04 they made a poor start, and club legend Bobby Robson was sacked at the end of August. He was replaced by Graeme Souness, for this was still the period in English football where it seemed obvious that Souness would make a decent manager at some point. He'd played for Liverpool, after all, and they had a boot room. They eventually finished 14th.
Yet there were plenty of players in the squad with decent reputations, considerable experience, or a bit of promise. Alan Shearer and Nicky Butt at one end of their careers; James Milner and Jermaine Jenas at the other. Maybe Rooney — 18 years old, utterly fearless, with Robson to guide and Shearer to inspire — could have been the catalyst for something special at St. James' Park.
Instead, he went to Old Trafford, and Newcastle's season was defined by the unedifying, deeply amusing sight of teammates Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer fighting on the pitch. With each other.
Back in the real world, Rooney was the only addition to Manchester United's first team. (The other two summer signings, Gerard Pique and Giuseppe Rossi, went into the reserves and then vanished into obscurity.) It's important to remember, given how wearying the Rooney question has become over the last few seasons, just how exciting a prospect he was. Hype is not always a malign force; it is, at its best, the manifestation of genuine, giddy excitement. And that's what Rooney created when he smashed in that winner against Arsenal, and when he took Euro 2004 in his hands and threatened, until injury brought him low, to snap it in half. Pure, innocent, hype. Just how good can he get?
He made, as you're doubtless aware, a pretty decent start to life at Old Trafford. You'll have seen his debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce a million times, it's always worth another look. And then another reflection on just how ridiculous a thing to do it was. How self-possessed. How nerveless. How cartoonishly appropriate.
Football commentators often like to claim that dramatic moments could not be scripted, as though the imagination of humanity couldn't stretch to a last minute equaliser from a returning player. But this has the opposite problem: it wouldn't be scripted. You'd write it down, look at it, and think "nah, too much. Too silly. Sure, you could imagine it. But nobody would believe it."
A month later, on his 19th birthday, Rooney started against Arsenal at Old Trafford, and made such a nuisance of himself all afternoon that Sol Campbell had no choice but to crudely hack him to the ground inside the box. And while it's Ruud van Nistelrooy's penalty and celebration that dominate the memory, along with all those angry Arsenal players, it was Rooney that nicked the second goal in the 90th minute.
It was, however, a season of moments rather than sustained success, and it ended in disappointment by United's high, trophy-hungry standards. Roy Carroll and Tim Howard took it in turns to underwhelm in goal, and Van Nistelrooy spent a fair chunk of the season injured. A long unbeaten league run between November and April (including that 4-2 win at Highbury) kept United just about in the chase after a terrible start, but late slips against Norwich and Everton meant a third-placed finish.
As for the cups, United were edged out in the League Cup semi-finals by Chelsea, bored out of the FA Cup final by Arsenal and a penalty shootout, and carefully, delicately filleted by AC Milan in the first Champions League knockout round. The fact that Rooney finished the season as United's leading goalscorer, with 11 in the league and 17 overall, is impressive on an individual level but perhaps telling in the broader view. When the kid comes in and does better than everybody else, it probably hasn't been a great year.
Of those goals, it's the one against Newcastle that will probably stand as the signature Early Rooney goal. From arguing with a referee to hammering a first-time dipping volley into the top corner in one, smooth, easy movement: a perfect symbiosis between his untethered personality and his apparently limitless ability. As Rio Ferdinand says in the clip below, it "epitomised what Wazza was about. It was explosive."
That said, we reckon Rooney might secretly prefer his goal away at Liverpool. It wasn't quite so emphatic a strike, and it needed Jerzy Dudek to usher it on its way. But it was very funny, and it did give a young Everton fan the chance to cup his ears to the Anfield crowd. That has to have felt pretty good.
Ultimately, it was a season of frustration for United but immense promise for Rooney, who took to the bigger stage like a duck to pancakes. This was the middle of three title-free years for Alex Ferguson and, so hindsight tells us, a period of notable transition. But with Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo establishing themselves as first-team players, the frontline of the future was in place. Just the midfield, defence, and goalkeeper to sort, then.
2004/05: 43 games, 17 goals, no trophies