Rooney received the loudest ovation from the Gwladys Street when Ronald Koeman’s new-look team was announced before kick-off. The high-pitched chants of his name during the Europa League third-qualifying round first leg were a reminder that a new generation of fans have emerged since his 2004 exit provoked one irate fan to scrawl ‘Could have been a God but chose to be a Devil’ on a stadium wall.
The occasion and the Everton performance also underwhelmed, understandably given Koeman’s players returned to pre-season training three weeks ago and had played three friendlies before facing a Ruzomberok side on their fifth European tie of the campaign. In that context, it would be harsh to draw conclusions about what Rooney can contribute to his boyhood club on the pitch, although his speed of thought and ability to find pockets of space immediately stood out. Everton will hope his finishing can be attributed to pre-season rust. “Overall he was good, positive,” the Everton manager said.
Koeman has four positions in mind for the striker, none in midfield, and started him at centre-forward here. He was given few opportunities in that role during his final seasons at United but should find Everton more accommodating: not only due to the current lack of alternatives with Romelu Lukaku headed in the opposite direction but because Koeman is reluctant to rotate. Or, to quote the blunt Dutchman: “I don’t like that.”
Rooney kicked off the new season at Goodison and had three chances of varying difficulty to open the scoring in a sterile first half. The first he created for himself, spinning on Leighton Baines’s ball into the box and shooting over from a tight angle. The second was the clearest but, having controlled a cut-back from Dominic Calvert-Lewin in front of goal, Rooney scuffed his second touch straight at the goalkeeper, Matus Macik, while off-balance. He then missed Cuco Martina’s cross completely when attempting a first-time volley on the edge of the Ruzomberok area.
Rooney’s frustration at the missed chances was obvious. One of the motivating factors behind his decision to rejoin Everton, when more lucrative offers were on the table from China, was that his sons had never seen him play for the club. His family were present and he was desperate to mark his first competitive appearance for Everton at Goodison since May 2004 (a 2-1 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers) with a goal. They must wait.
The former United and England captain also swapped flanks with Kevin Mirallas late on as Koeman’s team edged ahead courtesy of Baines’s deflected long-range strike plus a fine save from Maarten Stekelenburg from Jan Maslo’s header. Rooney was more involved in the wider positions – he also received more support to having been isolated at times at center forward – but this was a subdued opening for all of Everton’s players, new and old.
“It was great to be out at Goodison in a blue shirt again, a great feeling,” said Rooney. “But it was an important game for us and I had to put my emotions to one side.”