The moment Wayne Rooney craved, the reason he came home to Everton. With his sons looking on the 31-year-old marked his return to his boyhood club with a fine winner against Stoke City and an influential performance for Ronald Koeman’s new-look side. An ugly game was elevated by the romantic script.
“To score the winning goal at Goodison is a special moment,” said Rooney. “To play for this football club again is a huge deal for me and to score the winning goal at Goodison in the first Premier League game; it doesn’t get much better.”
England’s all-time leading goalscorer converted a thumping header on the stroke of half-time – as Mark Hughes feared he might – and was a quality, wily influence on the second half as he eased himself back into the old routine in royal blue. Rooney’s 199th Premier League goal was also his first for Everton since April 2004, not that he has endured a 13-year drought, of course, and he was not the only debutant to impress for Koeman. The most expensive British goalkeeper in history, the £30m Jordan Pickford, produced an excellent save to prevent Xherdan Shaqiri equalising with a 25-yard bullet in stoppage time.
“There was one player in an Everton shirt today who, from the first second to the last, was comfortable on the pitch,” said the Everton manager on his summer acquisition from Manchester United. “Every decision he made was the right one and he scored a great, great goal from a great cross by Dominic [Calvert-Lewin]. In difficult moments of the game he showed his experience, he was clever, comfortable on the ball and that was different to some other players on the pitch. That’s why we signed him.”
Everton and Rooney prospered after a pedestrian start. Stoke, with two new signings in the starting line-up, settled quicker than their unbalanced hosts with Darren Fletcher enjoying an assured debut alongside Joe Allen in central midfield.
Koeman’s decision to deploy Calvert-Lewin and Leighton Baines as wing-backs flanking a three-man central defence did not produce the pace or width he envisaged – with the notable exception of the all-important goal – and his team laboured in a tedious first half. Goodison had fallen into a stupor when Rooney suddenly illuminated the contest.
Sandro Ramírez, Everton’s other attacking recruit of the summer, released Calvert-Lewin into space on the right. The young striker was an odd choice at wing-back but he vindicated his manager’s selection with an inch-perfect cross into the penalty area. Rooney rose majestically to steer a fine header back across Jack Butland and into the same net that received his first league strike for the club, against Arsenal in 2002. The forward broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record for United against Hughes’ Stoke side last season and revelled in his latest punishment, sliding to his knees in front of the Park End stand. His influence grew thereafter.
Koeman switched to a four-man defence for the second half, replacing Ashley Williams with Cuco Martina and pushing Calvert-Lewin into the attack. The changes brought immediate improvement from Everton who, with greater awareness from the England Under-20 World Cup-winning striker, could have established a more comfortable lead. Twice he went for goal when team-mates were free and better placed. Rooney made his feelings clear.
“I expected to get space on the right so put a winger there instead of Tom Davies, Mason Holgate or Cuco,” the Everton manager explained. “That wasn’t how it went but that wasn’t Dominic’s problem. That was my fault. Even at 1-0 after 45 minutes I decided to change and we were much more comfortable with four defenders and had more control. It was not the best performance but we know we can do much better.”
The introduction of Peter Crouch for the anonymous Saido Berahino gave Stoke a presence and menace they previously lacked and it needed several last-ditch interventions by Everton to preserve their clean sheet. Pickford dominated his penalty area too when called upon and his late save from Shaqiri showed the value of investing between the posts.
Hughes lamented: “It was not the result we wanted but I thought the performance was fine. We had a lot of control in the first half. We needed to get to half-time but probably the only chance Everton created in the first half was a quality ball into the box for you know who. He was always going to be part of the story today. That was always the worry.”