“Realistically I know myself that Russia will be my last opportunity to do anything with England. Hopefully I can end my time with England on a high.”
In the most roundabout way possible, Wayne Rooney has got his wish. Speaking last August following yet another inadequate major tournament showing both for himself and for England, the captain outlined his plans to retire after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Plenty has changed since. Rooney was dropped by Gareth Southgate in October, then omitted from the latest England squad in March. Questions emerged over his long-term future, and for the first time in his international career, there was a paucity of answers. Then came the brief glimmer of light, the tentative hope of a resurgence after revitalising a club career that was threatening to crawl over the finish line at Manchester United.
Two goals in two games for boyhood club Everton has given the 31-year-old a new lease of life in this nascent season, and with Rooney’s announcement on Wednesday that his England career had come to an end, he can concentrate fully on matters at Goodison Park. His final appearance for his country will be the 3-0 victory over Scotland in November, in which he assisted the final goal. It is hardly the “high” he had hoped for 12 months ago, but he will gladly take it.
For Rooney, it is a rather quick change of heart. “I love playing for England,” he said in June. “Gareth told me that, if I get back playing every week, then the door is still open. I want to play for England. I am focused on Everton, getting back playing and doing well and, if I do well, Gareth Southgate will have a decision to make.”
Little over two months later, it has been made for him. Rooney was at pains to casually point out that Southgate hoped to reward his positive form – “It was great that he called me this week to tell me he wanted me back in the England squad for the upcoming matches. I really appreciated that” – but the captain is ensuring his ship is not abandoned again.
Make no mistake: He is retiring while he is still wanted. His Everton form has thrust him back into contention; he is able to call the shots once again. “I told Gareth that I had now decided to retire for good from international football,” sends a clear message. This is Rooney snubbing Southgate, not the other way around.
If anyone has earned the right to make such a self-serving decision, it is England’s record goalscorer, captain and most-capped outfielder ever. And as the tributes pour in and the memories of an uninterrupted spell as his country’s most influential and recognisable player resurface, there is an acceptance that this choice serves not only Rooney, but England too.
The 31-year-old’s presence – or lack thereof – in squads over the last two years has been stifling. Each press conference would include questions concerning his place, every newspaper would speculate over his future. Can he still start as a striker? What about as a No 10? Has he been given enough chances in central midfield?
The problem with Rooney was that numerous former managers felt he had to be shoehorned into the starting line-up. Of his 119 caps, 109 were starts. The ten times he was a substitute include two occasions when he was recovering from injury, such as the 2006 World Cup group game with Trinidad and Tobago, and two instances in which the whole side was rested, as they were against Slovakia at Euro 2016.
Only with Southgate’s appointment did that change. Since the start of 2016, Rooney has been benched as many times as he was in his first four England games – three times. When he was called up, and he almost always was, it was unfathomable that he would not start.
Rooney, not through his own doing, had become a cloud hovering over Wembley, impeding any chance of progress for England. Despite not starting more than three consecutive games for his country since September 2015, he was still the story, the headline-grabber, the distraction. Southgate dropping him did nothing to alleviate that, but the immediacy of retirement will mean Rooney is at the very best a secondary character come the World Cup qualifier against Malta on September 1. That is in the best interests of all parties.
England must now grasp this opportunity to evolve. In the last 12 months, just six outfielders over the age of 30 have been called up to the national squad. With Rooney now out of the picture, Glen Johnson unlikely to ever receive the opportunity again, and Phil Jagielka and Jermain Defoe outside chances at best to keep their places, Southgate has the foundations of a young, hungry squad. Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy, as well as Joe Hart and Tom Heaton, can provide the experience.
The signs are positive. “We have a lot of players playing exceptionally well in the area of the pitch that Wayne plays,” Southgate said in May, explaining Rooney’s omission. “We have got players that have done really, really well for us in Adam Lallana and Dele Alli. We have got Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane coming back and Jermain Defoe who did really well for us last time, while Jamie Vardy’s been in excellent form in the second half of the season.”
Rooney might be outperforming each of those players at this early stage of the campaign, but they represent a bright future that he no longer wishes to obscure. That he has been able to remove himself from the difficult equation without being forcibly withdrawn is his final England victory.