…but we’re not entirely sure how much of an achievement. Is the number 49 high enough to be celebrated regardless of Wayne Rooney’s actual form, asks Johnny…
Some people love statistics. How long, how thick, how big? For some, a ruler will always sort the men from the boys. Those people see hard facts as a route map towards truth.
Others are less concerned with numbers and prefer to judge quality in less measurable, more metaphysical ways, relying on how things feel or look instead. For the numbers-obsessed, this is a weak way to see the world and an especially flawed way to see football because, quite often, the stats contradict the way you feel about a football match. Right at the top of this is how the number of goals a player scores doesn’t always reflect how valuable they are as a player. A serial scorer of fourth and fifth goals is simply not as important as someone who scores fewer but more important goals. The player who only scores against poor sides but goes missing against the best sides is a not-uncommon figure. They can have great goals stats, but numbers are far from the whole story.
So when the papers were full of Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring achievement for England this weekend, it was hard to know exactly where to place it in terms of achievement, or even if it was worth noting much at all. Does it matter that 12 of the 49 goals were scored against very weak sides such as San Marino, Kazakhstan, Andorra and Belarus? Does it matter that only four have been scored against what we might call top international sides and those were in friendlies, and that he’s never got anywhere near winning anything with England? Or is it just the size of the goals scored total that matters? After all, England don’t play top sides very often and do play lowly sides in qualifying games a hell of a lot. And anyway, it’s a team game, England being rubbish in tournaments can’t all be laid at his door, though his contribution to the rubbish should be noted.
Comparisons of footballers from different eras are notoriously impossible because the culture of the game is so different. Bobby Charlton’s England goals were scored in an era when they played in a ploughed field with a pig’s bladder and a defender could kick your leg off, beat you unconscious with the soggy end and still not get sent off, whereas Rooney gets to run around on a red carpet, having his head rubbed with jasmine oil, being showered with crushed diamonds and teddy bears, whilst defenders recite love poetry to him. The way each man responded to being bald is, in itself, illustrative of two very different eras.
Scoring 49 goals is certainly an achievement, in the same way that eating 49 boiled eggs in one sitting is an achievement, but it’s impossible to say how big or small an achievement it is. The coverage it has garnered seems to have amounted to basically pointing and saying “oooh look, the number 49”. Maybe he should have scored a lot more, or maybe it’s amazing he’s scored so many? Who’s to say? I suppose at least he’s been there. He’s turned up. What his contribution has been beyond that is where the debate starts.
This is why when it comes to football, bald statistics – such as total of goals scored – are of very limited use. The San Marino game is a great example. I’m sure even Wayne would say he played quite poorly and benefited from a dodgy penalty (in what universe was this a “lovely” way to equal the record, Glenn?), but the goals scored figure doesn’t have a mark next to it saying “a lot of these goals came in games when he was playing rubbish”.
So what does scoring 49 goals say about Rooney as an international player? Where does it place him in the pantheon of England internationals? Does anyone know? All I know is when I see Rooney playing for England, most of the time, but not all of the time, he doesn’t seem to be exceptionally good and certainly not as exceptionally good as his stats suggest he is. The degree of hope that he will find a bit of golden form and just do something great always exceeds the amount of times he does, by some measure. When not on top form, the ball seems to bounce off him like no other much-vaunted international and the San Marino game was no different in that respect.
He will obviously go on to be England’s record scorer and, as the cliche goes, no-one can take that away from him, but it seems likely that the disparity between his numbers and his form will continue to be wide and that will be his lasting legacy. Those who love stats will think him great and those who don’t love stats will continue to reserve their judgement.