Wayne Rooney last played for England a little over two years ago, yet seeing him take to the field at Wembley on Thursday night will feel like a relic from another age.
Given England’s recent success [pause for the sniggering of certain other European countries], and particularly given the recent emphasis on promoting young players like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison, it would feel no less peculiar to see Joe Cole or Michael Owen or Alan Shearer take to the pitch.
The only England match Wayne Rooney should be called up for nowadays is Soccer Aid, and even then I'd still rather have Olly Murs.
— Jonny Sharples (@JonnyGabriel) November 4, 2018
Since Rooney last appeared in an England shirt, Kieran Trippier has scored in a World Cup semi-final, Harry Maguire has scored in a World Cup quarter-final and been the subject of a popular tongue-in-cheek campaign to be featured on the new £50 note, and Jordan Pickford has displaced long-term starter Joe Hart to become the undisputed England number one. When you consider that all three made their England debuts after Rooney’s last appearance, you begin to see that two years can be a very, very long time in football.
But it is indeed only two years, and while it is easy and fun to be cynical and miserable about these things, it is clear that everyone’s heart is in the right place when it comes to giving the Assassin-Faced Baby a fond farewell. As Gareth Southgate put it: “We are a strange country in that we bemoan the fact we haven’t achieved as much as we’d like and then we have a player who should be held in the highest regard and we are spending a lot of time justifying giving him that tribute.”
The strange thing about Rooney is that you almost have to consciously remind yourself of his achievements – and indeed, by any objective measure, he is one of English football’s all-time greats. No player becomes the all-time leading goalscorer for both Manchester United and England by accident.
Yet it is not this that comes to mind when we think of Rooney. The mind plays tricks when it comes to the enduring reputation of players who peak early in their careers, and it often seems that the sense of pure excitement and admiration drains out of the collective memory just as quickly as the pace saps out of certain players’ own legs.
We don’t remember Fernando Torres as the exhilarating player that took the Premier League by storm when he first joined Liverpool in 2007 and scored in two European Championship finals; we remember the sullen, anonymous forward who turned out for Chelsea, his Champions League semi-final goal as much an amusing novelty as, say, Federico Macheda’s winner against Aston Villa. We don’t remember Michael Owen as a Ballon d’Or-winning burst of pure pace and excitement, but as a dour, cinema-phobic benchwarmer.
Likewise, with Rooney, the abiding memory is not of the man who tore up Euro 2004 to confirm his status as the best teenager in world football, and who had every England fan wondering what might have been had a foot injury not forced him off midway through the first half of a quarter-final penalty shootout exit to Portugal. Instead, the image will be of him trying and failing as a plodding midfielder who apparently thought he was Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2016, a tournament in which he captained England to a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Iceland.
That might just be life, and there are plenty of people who would press the point that Rooney was extremely handsomely compensated throughout his late-career under-performance, and that we ought not to have too much sympathy. Others may view it as cloyingly over-sentimental, which is possibly what Southgate is alluding to when describing us as “a strange country”.
All of that is fair. England, infamously, does not do mass outpourings of positive emotion, limiting ourselves primarily to anger, grief, and tutting. The peculiar send-off the Netherlands recently gave Wesley Sneijder seems completely alien to us, a strange ritual carried out by a country that seems, bizarrely, to like and respect its angry, balding, successful footballers.
But it seems a shame that we are incapable of casting our cynicism aside; that our attitude is largely ‘no, you’re done, get out of here’. More seriously, it is a shame, in life in general, that we don’t make time to appreciate success and achievement with a little bit of bluster and a few nice video packages until someone dies or falls seriously ill. That goes especially double for those who, for whatever reason, have become a bit of a figure of fun.
This is, after all, only a friendly against the USA, not a vital qualifier where such an indulgence would either be hugely disrespectful to lesser opposition or, worse, a potentially backfiring folly in a vital qualifier.
It seems unlikely that anybody would have objected to a celebratory run-out as a final appearance had it happened a year or two ago. It is worth remembering that Southgate did actually offer a recall to Rooney last August, but the striker turned it down, instead opting to announce his retirement from international football.
Given that England were heading into a World Cup, Southgate likely would have seen holding a celebration at that time to be something of an unwanted distraction, a decision vindicated by England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals over the summer.
Now, with the Nations League coming to a close and with qualification to next summer’s final partially out of their own hands (they would realistically need Croatia to beat Spain on Thursday night, followed by a victory on Croatia on Sunday), Southgate has evidently decided that now is the right time to pay tribute to Rooney – particularly given that the game will serve as a fundraiser and marketing tool for the player’s charity foundation.
There will be plenty of mockery tonight when Rooney takes to the field – but hopefully, we can each find a small corner of our hearts in which we can admit: yeah, you know what, that’s actually quite nice. Good on him.
Steven Chicken is on Twitter
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