Wayne Rooney has stopped himself in his tracks.
He has adjusted his body position.
He has swivelled, while keeping his eyes locked onto the flight of the ball.
Now he is in the air, horizontal to the Old Trafford turf, as he swings his trusty right foot high above his head to try and make contact with Nani’s deflected cross.
Vincent Kompany is stranded, helpless, a few yards away after misreading the trajectory.
Micah Richards is preparing to head it clear at the back post.
But it’s no use.
Rooney has made contact with his ambitious overhead kick. Not only that, he’s succeeded in propelling it past Joe Hart and into Manchester City’s top corner.
What happens next is a combination of mayhem, elation, pandemonium – call it what you want.
This. Is. History.
“I saw it come into the box and thought, ‘Why not?’ Thankfully it finished up in the top corner,” Rooney explained to Sky Sports post-match after his goal had sent United eight points clear of their rivals at the top of the league.
“I was trying to get in a good position for when Nani crossed it. Nine times out of ten they go over the crossbar. Today it ended up in the top corner. It is instinct. You don’t have time to think about it.”
One of the most iconic of all Premier League goals happened on February 12, 2011 – 10 years ago on Friday – but still feels fresh in the memory. Maybe because it’s shown on TV every single week, in one shape or another.
There were 75,322 fans inside Old Trafford that day, and not many people would have remembered this particular Manchester derby had it not been for Rooney’s brilliance.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had opened the scoring through Nani’s finish following a through ball by Ryan Giggs, but United had laboured in possession. David Silva equalised through a fortuitous deflection and the game was drifting towards a 1-1 draw before Rooney’s dramatic intervention.
It had been a frustrating day for the United fans inside Old Trafford, but also for sports photographer Alex Livesey. He was the only person from his company covering the game, meaning he had been forced to hedge his bets.
Often Getty Images would send two photographers to cover a game, allowing one person to be positioned at each end of the pitch to ensure no action is missed. However, on this particular occasion Livesey was on his own – and it wasn’t going to plan.
United normally opted to attack the Stretford End in the second half, but the coin toss had prompted a change of plan and Livesey was stranded at the opposite end to all of the action.
He had been stationed at the opposing end for both Nani’s opener and Silva’s equaliser and, as the clock ticked down, he was worried it was going to be one of those days.
“I was having a pretty bad game up until that point, but something like that can just change the whole day and your own fortunes in a split second,” he tells The Manchester Evening News.
“I ended up with United in the second half, which wasn’t my plan, but it actually worked out perfectly for me. It’s weird how these things go. Up until that point the match was a bit of a nightmare for me, then that happened and it was suddenly the only talking point, for years and years.”
It’s one thing being in the right place at the right time, but it’s another to snap a clear picture that can be used on the back pages of the newspapers. The initial happiness at being positioned in the perfect spot for both the goal and the celebration soon gave way to panic for Livesey.
“I did actually feel like I hadn’t got it, because Nani had crossed the ball in from the wing, but it felt like it had taken a bit of an odd deflection,” he explains.
“It looped and it does, just for a millisecond, knock you off because it doesn’t come in at the right trajectory. Then, because he was in between Kompany and Richards, he was in an awkward position. So you’ve got the flight of the ball coming in, you’re locking onto Rooney and it’s all happening in that split-second. You’re not 100% if you’ve even got it.
“When you see that it is sharp, it’s such a relief: ‘I’ve got it’.”
Before that fateful 78th minute, up in the Old Trafford press box the assembled journalists had been wondering what their introductions might be. How do you sell a dull 1-1 draw of little consequence?
“I don’t think it was a particularly great game and as a journalist you are always thinking ‘What’s my angle into the match report?’ and I didn’t think I really had one,” Duncan White, the former football correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph, tells The MEN.
Thankfully, for White and his colleagues, Rooney’s goal made questions over introductions immediately redundant.
“It was one of those moments where you knew you’d seen something a bit special,” he says. “The context of it obviously: doing it in the derby, doing it to win the game. There were some funny immediate arguments in the press box afterwards… It was very clear who thought he’d shinned it and who thought it was a work of absolute genius.
“I didn’t have a dog in the fight and I thought it was truly remarkable.
“Does he shin it? On the replay it looks like he does a little bit, but in terms of the height he gets, the athleticism of it – for someone who doesn’t look like a particularly athletic player – the instinct, the thought to even do that within seconds of doing an embarrassing miscontrol which caused groans around the stadium. It shows the audacity of Rooney as a player and the instinctive brilliance he had.
“You hear Manchester United fans sometimes complain about the atmosphere not being what it should be at times, but that goal brought the house down. That was as loud as I’ve heard the stadium. It was quite incredible.”
Livesey may have got the photos he wanted, but there was another consideration at the back of his mind. Livesey is a life-long City fan and had just documented a stunning winner against his team inside a raucous Old Trafford. But while he might have preferred Carlos Tevez to have pulled out the overhead kick, he insists the moment didn’t get to him.
“I treat every game the same,” he says.
“You kind of shut out everything and zone in on what you’re doing. You’ve got the crowd, the noise around you and you can feel the emotion around you. But you’re trying to do a job by zoning in on the pictures and blocking everything out. It’s only afterwards that you really take it all in. You’re fixated on making sure you capture the picture.”
Livesey may have been in the zone behind the camera, but the vast majority of the people inside Old Trafford were not so calm. Jonathan Green, a season ticket holder in South Stand, was one of them.
“That goal was like a bolt from the blue and the crowd went crazy,” says. “For like half a second it was quiet. It was almost in slow motion and you could literally hear the ball against his boot – or shin pad – and it flew in and the ground absolutely erupted. We knew we’d witnessed something really special.”
On the opposite side of the stadium in the North Stand, Abed Iqbal was taking in what he’d just seen.
“A lot of people said it was unbelievable, but I don’t think it was unbelievable,” he explains.
“We’ve been season ticket holders and I’ve been going for many many years. And I’ve seen Rooney shape up for it, so I knew exactly what was going to do. He was going for the overhead. A few of us who sit together said that as soon as the ball went in [to the box]. When he hit it we just started celebrating because we could see it from our angle. It went straight past Joe Hart.”
When Manchester United shared the goal on their Twitter feed on Friday it sparked quite the debate. “Overrated,” posted one fan. “It hit his shin,” wrote another. Even 10 years on, it seems the debate continues to rage over the method Rooney took to put the ball into the top corner.
Ferugson didn’t seem to mind how it went in.
“The execution was incredible,” he wrote in his 2013 autobiography. “It’s not as if that unforgettable overhead finish was delivered from the six-yard line. He was 14 yards from goal. It also took a deflection as he was running in.”
The United fans who were there that day are not too concerned either.
“It doesn’t matter how he hit it,” Green says. “He knew where the ball was and he understood where the goal was from the position he was in. He clearly knew as soon as the ball left his boot that it was in. It flew in – I remember it really vividly.”
Iqbal adds: “It was controlled, I would say. If you play football, you know that if you shin it, it could go anywhere. But it was almost as if, the way he shaped himself up, that was the way he was aiming to keep the ball down and to hit it in. I think if he’d caught it with his foot it might have gone anywhere.
“A lot of people wrote it off at the time saying it was a bit of a fluke, or that he mishit it. I don’t think it was personally. I think he meant to do it. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. It’s hit the back of the net.”
For White, an overhead kick is still an overhead kick, no matter who part of the anatomy you use.
“He scored an overhead kick from pretty much the edge of the box. I think it would be pretty churlish to ding him on how cleanly he may or may not have caught it,” he says.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see [Lionel] Messi score some pretty special goals, but was one of the most memorable I saw in the hundreds of games I’ve seen and it’s as much [to do with] the context – that it exploded out of this pretty dull game in which he was having a pretty rough time.
“The fact that this game in one of those periods in which he wasn’t doing so well made it all the more special, I think.”
The goal was special enough, but the context is also important in framing it. Just months earlier, in October 2010, Rooney had become embroiled in a spat with Ferguson and publicly stated he wanted to leave the club to fulfil his ambitions. He ended up signing a new five-year contract, but his form was patchy, as was his relationship with match-going fans.
Rooney had scored just four goals in 16 Premier League matches going into the derby and had spent the preceding 77 minutes struggling to influence the match, up front on his own in the 4-5-1 formation.
This was a high-stakes moment. Had he fallen flat on his face, United fans may well have left that day with a sour taste in their mouths following another ineffectual performance.
“Considering what had happened a few months before, in October, with him trying to leave and he was still repairing the damage,” says Green. “I don’t think he had repaired the damage by that point. It was almost a sort of ‘I’m back, I care’ moment.”
“If I remember correctly, at that time Rooney was being played out of position by Fergie quite a lot and we weren’t seeing the best of him,” Iqbal explains.
“Around that time I always used to complain at Old Trafford about his first touch letting him down, but I think he more than made up for it.
“It’s a sign of a great player: you can have an absolutely poor game and then it just takes that one moment of magic and that’s it.”
Rooney told Sky Sports in 2017 that he considered that goal to be the most important of his career, considering his personal circumstances and the fact that United went on to win the Premier League title, while City finished nine points back in third place.
By his high standards 11 goals in 28 league appearances – and 16 in 40 altogether – was a poor return in the 2010/11 season, but the quality one of those strikes will endure in the minds of those who were there that day.
“There’s this thing in British football where he sometimes confuse courage with putting in a hard tackle or putting your head in with the boots,” says White.
“But sometimes it takes real courage just to try something when the percentage of it coming off isn’t particularly high, but the audacity of it means it has the opportunity to win something for you.
“I think it should be celebrated. The fact that we’re even talking about it 10 years on is testament to its quality.”