Exclusive John Welsh column

Putting in a strong tackle in on Wayne Rooney
Putting in a strong tackle in on Wayne Rooney
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A knowing nod of the head accompanied by the ceremonial handshake was exchanged between Wayne Rooney and I before the Manchester United FA Cup tie.

Waiting in line as we do before each game to shake the hands of our opponents, I was greeted by a familiar face as I approached United’s team.

With us both being around the same age and from Liverpool, I have known Wayne from way back when.

I was not his best friend or anything, but I knew him a little bit as we both made our way in the game as junior players.

Even as a kid, there was already a big spotlight surrounding Wayne, especially after he signed for his boyhood club Everton.

I obviously came up through the Liverpool youth ranks and I remember the first time I ever played against him was in an Under-18s derby game between the two clubs.

The match was played at Bellefield – Everton’s old training ground – and I remember we opened up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

We were in cruise control and were absolutely battering Everton. We got a bit cocky and were passing the ball around for fun.

But then at half-time, Wayne came on.

He’s a year or two younger than me so he would have been barely 16 playing in an Under-18s match.

He totally changed the game in the second half, ended up scoring a hat-trick and we were lucky to end up with a draw.

We just could not believe how good he was. Even then he was big, strong and powerful...and fast!

One of his goals was an absolute wonder strike and you just knew then he was going to do something big in the game.

I don’t think it was much longer after that game that Wayne made his first-team debut for Everton and scored that great goal against Arsenal at Goodison Park.

I had a quick chat with Wayne after the game at Deepdale the other week but I did not manage to swap shirts with him – as captain that was Tom Clarke’s privilege.

I felt all in all, we did well against United, although being a Liverpudlian, I did not enjoy losing to them.

Obviously, Rooney was involved in some of the key incidents, including their first and third goals. I felt he was offside for the first at the time and nothing I’ve seen since has changed that view.

Ander Herrera’s strike was like a 
shot-block/tackle and Rooney definitely distracted Stucki.

I believe Stucki would have saved the shot, but I think he hesitated because he thought Wayne was going to stick it in.

With the penalty, at the time, I thought it was a penalty.

I am not going to call Wayne, because I thought what he did was clever.

Put it this way, if Joe Garner had done the same at 
the other end of the pitch then I would have been asking for a spot-kick. And obviously, there 
is also a question mark over the second goal as Marouanne Fellaini looked like he pushed Tom Clarke.

Regardless of the result, it was a match I really enjoyed and it was a great experience, especially for myself with everything that has happened over the past year in terms of the match-fixing saga.

It goes without saying that it was a massive weight off my shoulders when we received a letter, out of the blue, to say the investigation was being closed.

We were kept in the dark for most of the investigation – nobody told us anything really. But it was a big relief – I could finally get on with my life and my career.

Did it weigh on my mind when I was playing? I think it probably must have done.

I’m a bit proud and I’d probably like to come out and say it didn’t.

I was being accused of getting booked for money or whatever it was, so I was going into games thinking I can’t get booked and if I did get booked, people would think I was up to no good.

When you think that the main part of my game is tackling, and one or two 
mis-timed tackle gets you booked, it was difficult.

I was probably going into games thinking, ‘Whatever you do, make sure you don’t make any rash challenges’.

Thankfully, all that is behind me now and I can fully concentrate on helping Preston achieve automatic promotion.

We had a little blip last month, which saw us lose ground on the teams above 
but we’re back in it now after four successive league wins.

We never lost our belief or desire during that bad run.

We are hoping to make it five on the spin tomorrow against Oldham at Boundary Park.