Gareth Southgate has told Wayne Rooney the England captaincy is no longer his by right and he must first prove himself worthy of a place in the squad.
Rooney was left out of a much-changed squad to face Germany and Lithuania, with Southgate harbouring doubts about his lack of game time for Manchester United, having started just once in the Premier League in 2017.
He has also been battling a knee injury but could yet feature for United at the weekend only to sit out the international break.
It is the latest example of the 31-year-old’s once untouchable status being redefined under Southgate, who dropped the nation’s record goalscorer against Slovenia while still interim boss.
Although Southgate has spoken repeatedly about his respect for Rooney’s leadership qualities – honed over the past two and a half years – he will no longer guarantee him the role of skipper. Instead, he seems to favour a shift away from the notion of a permanent England captain entirely.
“We have this thing about ‘an England captain’, but really the captain is the person that is captain in the next game, isn’t it?” he said.
“I’ve talked with Wayne and I think there’s a chance he’s fit for the weekend but the injury, coupled with the fact he’s not had a lot of game time recently and others have, determined my decision.
“Always the danger in any sport with naming a ‘captain’ is selection. Always there is a danger with form or anything else that it becomes a matter of debate.
“We have to look at Wayne as a number 10, which is his predominant role. In the last two games we’ve played Dele (Alli) there and we’ve played Adam Lallana there.
“Both are playing very well, scoring and assisting for their clubs. Ross Barkley has been playing very well for his club.
“So there’s competition. I can’t dress that up any other way. There are some very good players and it’s a battle to get in this squad.
“Wayne totally understands that. He’s the most realistic senior player I think I’ve dealt with in terms of how he views the game. He doesn’t have any expectations of being treated differently or treated in a special way.”
Rooney’s absence from the next get together, along with that of the injured Jordan Henderson, who wore the armband against Slovenia, gives other players the chance to step forward.
And spreading the burden of leadership, which Rooney has shouldered manfully at times since taking over from Steven Gerrard in 2014, is a theme Southgate is eager to embrace.
“I always just assume you pick a team for a game and the captain of that game is the captain. I think that’s why you need a leadership group,” he said.
“The key for me is how do we develop more leaders? There are moments in a game to go and grab it by the scruff of the neck and moments to step in. But there is nothing to stop other players from doing that.
“I get the bloke who pulls the armband on for match day is important, but in (Euro) ’96 it was just as important what Stuart Pearce was doing during the week, and Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham and Paul Ince as Tony Adams.
“In fact, it was David Platt who was captain at the start – Tony took over during the tournament. It is more the culture of the team that is set by the leaders in the group that I think is fundamental to us doing well.”
The very notion that Rooney, the proud owner of 119 Three Lions caps and a record 53 goals, would sit out a squad which included the likes of a 34-year-old Jermain Defoe, West Brom’s Jake Livermore and uncapped players such as Michail Antonio, Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, would have seemed fanciful at the start of the season.
But in his short time in the top job Southgate has shown an impressive willingness to tackle thorny issues, promote on merit and take tough calls on those who could, or should, be doing better. Among the latter group Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott join Rooney on the outside looking in to an expanded 26-strong panel.
While Rooney and Wilshere have seen very public dips in their stock at United and Arsenal, respectively, Walcott can consider himself more unfortunate.
He has scored 17 goals in all competitions this term and was handed news of his axing on the occasion of his 28th birthday.
“I’ve got to say he wasn’t chuffed to bits to get the call this morning and I understand that,” said Southgate.
“Quite rightly he said ‘I’m one of the leading goalscorers in the league’. I don’t mind being challenged on that at all. I totally respect that. I don’t expect him to be happy.
“But I’ve got to make decisions and I think it was the right thing to call him to talk that through, even though the timing probably wasn’t great.
“He’s a player I still like. I’ve said to him I’m not ruling out, but in terms of just having him as a squad player, I think it’s a better opportunity for me to look at one or two others and see what they can do.”