In the summer of 2004, as he entered a second season in Manchester United’s intense glare, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard encountered an expensive new teammate at the Carrington training ground. The newcomer’s poise and determination belied his teenage years.
“He was a tough-as-nails kid from Liverpool. Working class. Didn’t back down from anything,” Howard recalled this week. “He was a boy among a lot of men and never looked out of place. He never took any crap.”
His name was Wayne Rooney, who, at age 18, was 6 1/2 years younger than Howard. He had been the subject of what, at the time, was the largest transfer fee ($35 million) for a teenager in Premier League history.
Howard and Rooney were teammates for two years at fabled Old Trafford and, when Howard left in 2006, they became Premier League opponents for 10 seasons.
Now, two years since Howard departed Everton for the Colorado Rapids, Rooney also seems poised to depart the Liverpool-based club for MLS. D.C. United, sources close to the situation said, is close to signing the 32-year-old attacker at a salary of some $5 million, three times the previous club record.
The career scoring leader for Manchester United and the English national team would become the most famous figure in United’s 22-year history and raise the profile of a long-frugal organization that fell behind most of its brethren in the blossoming league and its pro sports counterparts in Washington.
In an interview Wednesday, Howard offered insight into Rooney’s personality and drive, as well as his outlook for success in MLS.
Howard dismissed concerns about Rooney’s age.
“The idea isn’t whether a player is of a certain age; it’s whether they are motivated and whether they are driven to come here and perform, help a team and ultimately buy into it,” said Howard, who turned 39 in March. “Not, ‘I’m coming here for vacation, I like the weather,’ but really roll their sleeves up and become a part of the team. That is all that matters.
“The age thing means nothing, but people hang on it. Know the man, understand how he operates, and when you strip back those layers, you’ll start to realize there is a top player there.”
What was Rooney like as a teammate?
“For all of his superstardom, he has always been an everyday guy,” Howard said. “You can talk about his fame and fortune, but at his core, he is like you and me. And he has never lost that. He plays with that determination.
“Even though he was captain of England and getting goals when he was 18 years old and playing in European matches, he is still a guy who will get stuck in and work.”
In his first season at Manchester United, Rooney scored 11 league goals in 29 appearances. Howard made 12 starts in league play and 14 in FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Champions League matches. The following campaign, while Howard was relegated to backup duty behind Dutch star Edwin van der Sar, Rooney posted 16 league goals.
During their time together, Howard witnessed Rooney’s fun side.
“My favorite part about Wayne is he fashioned himself as the third-best goalkeeper on the team, so he always jumped into goal” at training, Howard said. “I don’t know if he does it anymore; he’s getting older. He was a playful kid and now he’s a grown man, but he’s never lost that.”
Aside from their 13 Premier League meetings — Rooney scored three times against his former teammate — they clashed on the international stage twice: a 2008 friendly at Wembley (won by England, 2-0) and a 1-1 draw in group play at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“He’s formidable. He’s clinical. He does everything right,” Howard said. “The way he strikes the ball, the way he passes; he very rarely mishits the ball. When you play against Wayne Rooney, you always have to be ready.”
If Rooney comes to D.C., Howard said, he should not take the league lightly.
“He will be challenged. This is a tough league. People won’t care what his name is. There will be a lot of respect, but they are going to try to make it difficult for him. That, I think, will bring the best out of Wayne.”
At a time when many believe Rooney no longer has the legs to keep up, how would he do in MLS?
“Wayne will be fine,” Howard said. “When a player starts to get older, you want to utilize him in the right positions to get the most out of them. So that will be up to (D.C. coach) Benny Olsen to figure out where he bests suits the team.
“But make no mistake: Having Wayne Rooney makes you a better team.”
If Rooney joins United, he wouldn’t be eligible to play until mid-July. His fourth game would come against an old friend named Tim Howard.