FW Flashback: Euro 2004 Rooney breakout performances

As England go in search of a first-ever European Championship title, after coming so close during the 2020 edition, we're going to delve all the way back to 2004 when everything seemed possible for a footballing nation led by a once-in-a-generation ‘enfant terrible'.

The Three Lions went into Euro 2004 as one of the favourites with some star-studied players being called upon by Sven-Goran Eriksson, but none more exciting than the hotwire young talent Wayne Rooney. The soon-to-be Manchester United youngster had recently become the youngest ever player to start a game for England, and would go on to start every game over in Portugal.

Rooney was paired up top with Michael Owen for the first game of the tournament, which saw the Three Lions lose 2-1 to France, but that only seemed to ignite something in the teenage attacker. Next up were Switzerland and Croatia, neither of which had any idea what they were set to experience.

Euro 2004 Rooney breakout
Wayne Rooney starred at Euro 2004 for England – Photo by Icon Sport

Euro 2004 Rooney breakout moment

Following their opening game defeat to France, England had to be perfect for the remainder of the group stages, and that started with a win against Switzerland. Rooney and Owen started up top and it was the former who took centre stage.

Following some neat work by Liverpool duo Steven Gerrard and Owen, Everton product Rooney managed to find himself in space between two Swiss defenders, and then leapt like a salmon to get on the end of his striker partner's delicate cross and head past Jorg Stiel.

It would then take over 50 minutes for Rooney to settle the game, as his ferocious long-range effort cannoned back out off the post before rebounding into the goal off Stiel's head.

So while Rooney was unfortunate to not be credited with two goals, the fact he terrorised a sorry Swiss defence in Portugal all afternoon certainly made a lot of Europe stand up and take notice of this generational talent. However, this was only the tip of the iceberg for him at this tournament and for his career moving forward.

Next, it was a tougher task in Croatia and England knew only a win would book their spot in the knockout stages and once again, it was teenager Rooney who put the country on his back. The Three Lions were handed a huge shock after five minutes when Niko Kovac nodded his country ahead.

Wayne Rooney celebrating at Euro 2004
Wayne Rooney scored three goals at his debut tournament for England – Photo by Icon Sport

Rooney made Europe sit up and take notice

For the majority of the first half, it looked as though England would be behind at the interval, but Rooney had other ideas. The England superstar teed up Pual Scholes with an instinctive header across the goal before Rooney then launched a thunderbolt goalwards from outside the area in first-half stoppage time to put England ahead.

As Croatia looked for an equaliser they were vulnerable at the back and allowed Rooney space on and off the ball. A very neat one-two with strike partner Owen saw the teenager race through on goal with just Tomislav Butina to beat. Rooney remained calm and gave the Croatian shot-stopper ‘the eyes' and sent him the wrong way before slotting it home into the bottom left corner.

So much was expected of Rooney throughout his England career but instead, it was filled with a lot of personal and country disappointment at major tournaments, even missing out on Euro 2008 as a nation. After Euro 2004, Rooney would go on to have verbal spats with his own fans following a draw against Algeria in 2010, missing two games through suspension at Euro 2012, and of course, his infamous red card in 2006.

Given how Rooney broke onto the scene and the performances he was putting in week-in-week-out for Man United it's no surprise many may feel let down by what he did when it really mattered for the Three Lions. After Euro 2004, Rooney managed to score just another three goals and register one assist at major tournaments, although he is still England's second-top scorer of all time.

Gareth Southgate England squad
Photo by Icon sport

Gareth Southgate has moulded this crop of players perfectly

Something that Gareth Southgate has done very well during his time as England's manager is bringing through an exciting young crop of players to help the Three Lions become a very serious footballing nation. The likes of Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham are just a few examples of how Southgate has managed thief development and progression into the first team perfectly.

There has always been a feeling of not letting another superstar – like Rooney – burn out and not be able to perform with such heavy expectations on their shoulders, and Bellingham will be the best way for this to be tested.

At 20 years of age, Bellingham has already won the German Cup, La Liga and the Champions League. So playing for the Three Lions won't faze him too much, but with so much of his footballing career ahead of him he needs to be managed and not made to be a player who can be a victim of his own club success.

England's Jude Bellingham
Jude Bellingham has already racked up 29 caps for England – Photo by Icon Sport

Jude Bellingham will be desperate to perform on the global stage for England

Only one of Bellingham's first seven caps for England was a start, compared to Rooney who started four of his first seven caps and then instantly became a regular under many managers. Also, Bellingham never started a game at his first major tournament (Euro 2020) being handed just 55 minutes on England's run to the final, which couldn't be further from what happened to Rooney.

So in that regard, Southgate has done a decent job of protecting the growth and exposure of one of England's greatest players in this era of squads.

Bellingham is widely regarded as one of the most gifted midfielders in world football, so the demand for him to start and perform for England every game this summer will be immense, and his manager must be ready for what it will be like if things don't go the youngster's way.

Aaron is a multi-skilled sports content writer and media professional. He is a specialist in both Men's and Women's football, along with golf.