Rooney facing toughest decision of career
Desperate for another match-winner in the mould of Paul Gascoigne, fans and pundits alike immediately hailed him as the future of English football, and over the next few years in which he moved to Manchester United he did not disappoint.
Unlike the carefully manicured image of David Beckham, Rooney was raw and wild at times and played football as if he was still on the streets with his pals in Merseyside.
Eight years on, after the worst period of his career on and off the pitch, Rooney appears to be disenchanted with the game and has reached a self-inflicted crossroads.
His next decision will be the most important of his life.
Tuesday's extraordinary news conference by shell-shocked Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in which the Scot spoke candidly about Rooney's desire to quit Old Trafford sent shockwaves around the footballing world.
Rumours of huge wage demands immediately pointed the 24-year-old's likely future towards United's mega-rich rivals Manchester City - a move that were it to happen would turn him into a pariah in the red half of town.
"If he thought he already lived in a goldfish bowl then that would be nothing compared to if he went to City," Sammy McIlroy, who played for both club, told the BBC on Wednesday.
"It's an unbelievable situation. Carlos Tevez has done the same thing and at the moment has done very well.
"But to go just across the water with the fans at United loving him, he could be in for a rough ride."
Tevez made the move from United to City in 2009 but was largely forgiven by United fans, who realised the Argentine's hand had been forced by the Old Trafford money-men.
If Rooney were to defect, he would have no such sympathy and any flirtation with who Ferguson once described as the "noisy neighbours" down the road would make the next few months almost impossible for him at Old Trafford.
City manager Roberto Mancini insisted there had been no contact with Rooney on Wednesday but the speculation will multiply before the January transfer window unless the player either pledges himself to United or spells out his wishes.
Ferguson cleverly left the ball firmly in Rooney's court on Tuesday and the striker will have to make his intentions clear, sooner rather than later.
Paul Ince, another former United midfielder who discovered that you cross Ferguson at your peril, believes Rooney was not interested in the 200,000 pounds per week pay packet City could offer and may just be fatigued at carrying the hopes of his country and his club on his shoulders.
"I think there is more to it than money," Ince, who left United to join Inter Milan and later played for Liverpool, told BBC Radio. "It's never been about money with Wayne, it's been about his hunger for the game.
"We as a nation put a lot of pressure on Wayne Rooney leading up to the World Cup.
"We forget he's only 24 and that is a lot of pressure to take. Maybe he feels the best thing to do would be to go another country and start another life.
"I for one went to Inter Milan and it was the best thing I ever did to be away from everyone and concentrate on my family and my football."
"He's having a tough period at the moment but he's still a great player and he's not even reached his peak yet."