For an Anniversary
by Brian Phillips · September 28, 2009
It was five years ago today. Five years, a long time. A lot of water under the bridge since then. A lot of Johnnie under the old soft palate. Why, I’ll tell you, Ryan Giggs was a wee lad of 47, back then. Nani wasn’t even a gleam in Anderson’s eye.
We’d all heard the rumours, of course. An 18-year-old boy with the instep of Kylie Minogue and the brow of a young Jack Nicholson. So much natural spark it was as if Mr Tommy Taylor had been crossed with Guy Fawkes. Apparently he’d played rather well for Everton over the past two seasons and had starred for England in Euro 2004. Now, like all true United fans, we were excited to see him for the first time.
It was a game against Fenerbahçe in the D Group of the Champions League. I’d gone out to Old Trafford with my mates, and what I mainly remember about the run-up was that we were taking bets on whether David Bellion would link up with Eric Djemba-Djemba. I always liked that David Bellion. Some call me foolish, but when he and Eric Djemba-Djemba were in full flight together, the results could be breathtaking. I have no regrets regarding my “Bellion + Djemba-Djemba Swift As the Wind M.U.F.C. LEGENDS” tattoo, even if I do catch a bit of stick whenever I reveal it in public. It only comes out when I go swimming. That’s how good it is, that I save it for a special occasion. It’s not a standby, like my “Roy Keane painting a portrait of George Best while van Nistelrooy sheds a single tear.” But it could be. It’s that good.
So anyway, I don’t know that we were entirely focused on United’s newest player that day. But we were aware of him. In the back of my mind, I thought, “with any luck, he’ll score a goal or two today.” Just to myself, like. Of course, I also said it out loud. You know. To my mates.
They called out the starting lineups. I’m not too sure I noticed him. I had my eyes on David Bellion, and I was thinking, “number 12, you absolute titan.” I asked my cousin Korkmaz, “Korkmaz, who’s going to be our best player signed in 2003? Eric Djemba-Djemba, or that man David Bellion?” Korkmaz didn’t answer, which was unusual for Korkmaz. You might say it had never happened before, Korkmaz being the type around which it is impossible to get a word in edgeways. He also runs a very successful heating and refrigeration business. It was then I noticed that the stands were weirdly quiet. Whichever way I turned my gaze, the crowd around me at the Theatre was in the thrall of a Korkmaz-like silence.
“What’s all this about, then?” I said with a sniff. At that moment, I noticed him. Instantly, I realized why everyone else had gone quiet. There, in the center circle, tossing his head and stamping like a moose about to charge, was the newest signing of my club, Manchester United. Player isn’t really the right word for him. At the same time, demigod suggests a fuller hairline. I’ve been playing with a few phrases, and I think the best one to tell you what he meant to us that day is beast of purity. So let’s stick with that.
Or look at it like this. Every night for the past two weeks, my sister’s kid Tony Jr. had refused to go to sleep unless I carried him upstairs and read a bit out of that book Where the Wild Things Are. Well, the first time I saw Wayne Rooney, it was like something out of that book had come gnashing into existence. I mean, he didn’t literally have horns or feathers or…you know…those sort of pythony-pelicany bits. But spiritually, he might as well have been seventy foot tall and tearing about through the forest. I think he was, in his own head that day. In a way, I think he always is.
The game got underway, and it was great, you know? It was like, Giggs, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Kléberson, Giggs, Heinze, Ferdinand, Giggs, van Nistelrooy, BAM! Missed shot. Goal kick, Ferdinand, Giggs, Kléberson, Giggs, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Neville, Giggs, van Nistelrooy, BAM! Corner. I don’t know, people say we were lacking creative options that season, but I didn’t see it, not with Mr Ryan Giggs running the show. Finally he went Giggs, Kléberson, Giggs goes forward, Kléberson crosses, Giggs, head, GOAL. 1-0 United in the seventh minute.
It was right around that time, if I remember correctly, that young Rooney took a touch and played a sharp ball for David Bellion. Who uncharacteristically failed to produce. At that point, something happened to United’s newest striker. Something I’ve seen happen many times since, though never with so much surprise as I saw it with that day. I’ve searched high and low for the way to explain it, and the best I can do is to say he Bulled himself. You see, in those days, Tony Jr. used to watch one movie over and over again, called The Last Unicorn. Used to drive me mad, to be honest, though there was a fair bit to think about there as well.
It was a movie about the unicorns and how they were all driven into the sea by this great fiery bastard called the Red Bull. I don’t remember it all too well, but there was this dark tunnel, like, and then the Red Bull appeared at the far end of the tunnel, which was actually some kind of cave, and then these long lashing waves of fire went running down the walls of the cave toward you, like, and the Red Bull put its head down and started charging, and every step it took was a new kind of explosion and it was this big, blunt, hard-headed, evil-eyed ball of plain combustion and fury, like the sun, right, only if Roy Keane had gone into the sun and started controlling what it was doing.
That was how it was with Rooney. It was like, tunnel—fire—charge—whoosh—Red Bulled. And then it went Giggs, Bellion, Giggs, Kléberson, Giggs, Bellion, van Nistelrooy, Rooney, CRACK! Goal. Then Giggs, Ferdinand, Heinze, Giggs, Rooney, CRACK! Goal. A little while later, free kick, Rooney, CRACK! Goal. “Korkmaz,” I said, “remember how I’ve designated my neck as a tattoo-free zone for the moment while I wait for the right player to come along?”
“I remember,” Korkmaz said. There was no need to say anything else. He understood.
I think Fenerbahçe scored a couple of goals, and I know David Bellion got one, at the end, in the 81st minute, to make it 6-2. It was no less than his excellence deserved. And I stood up and chanted “There’s only one David Bellion” with everyone else in our section. (Not a lot of people joined in, for some reason. Bloody prawn-sandwich types, probably.) But in my heart, I only had eyes for one player, and it wasn’t Eric Djemba-Djemba. Not anymore. It was Mr Wayne Rooney, who hit like a meteor, roared like an earthquake, crashed like a thunderbolt, and ran like a forest fire. Who came at the ball like he was trying to murder a unicorn. Who played the game of football as if, in some wonderful way, he was trying to murder us all.
For five years I’ve had the privilege of watching him, and except for an officially redacted period of eighteen months when I preferred Ronaldo and a confused ten weeks of Tevez-worship in mid-2009, he’s been my favorite player all that time.
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