You all remember it. Well, at least, I certainly do. Chelsea hosted Manchester United in the very late days of April 2006 and a foot crumpled followed by a bone snapping that reverberated throughout old Blighty. Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira, rather innocuously it should be added, challenged Wayne Rooney and what followed can only be described as the most poignant metatarsal fracture heard in football. Rooney went down. As did his hopes of making the fast approaching World Cup in Germany.
Wayne Rooney was twenty years old at the time. In the tournament prior, Euro 2004 hosted by eventual runners-up Portugal, an eighteen year old Rooney had electrified the globe by scoring four goals in the group stages. On such a ferocious and feared team, the tasty starting XI can still be rattled off by England fans as if these matches had just occurred: James, G. Neville, Campbell, Terry, Cole, Beckham (Capt.), Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Owen, Rooney. The world beckoned. A trophy could finally make its way home for the first time since those heady glory days of 1966. But, as luck would have it…Rooney got injured in the 27th minute of the quarterfinal and England would go on to agonizingly lose after a lackluster penalty shootout to Luis Figo, a young Cristiano Ronaldo and their fellow buoyant Portugal teammates. Another jaw-droppingly heart-shattering loss that had become so commonplace for Three Lions fans. The epitome of the Rooney era.
Wayne Rooney would recover from the 2006 foot fracture in record time. He would land in Germany as the hero sent to rescue the flailing troops and famously exclaim en route to the Baden-Baden base: “The big man is back in town!” What followed was a familiar script — another early exit for Wayne (a straight red card for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, which preceded the maligned Ronaldo wink to the bench) and another loss to Portugal. Luckily for English players and fans alike, lionized Frenchman Zinedine Zidane would steal the planet’s headlines by head-butting his way to infamy as Italy, captained by rewarded-for-his-efforts-with-the-Ballon-d’Or Fabio Cannavaro, hoisted the cup. #FORZARAGAZZI
This era is now officially over. Wayne Rooney announced his retirement from the England setup at thirty one years old. The record goal scorer and current captain has worn the white for the last time. And what a career it was. I recognize it came with an empty trophy cabinet and only quarterfinal appearances, but Rooney lived up to his billing. Labeled the new Pelé at sixteen, everything imaginable was expected of him. He broke the long held England goal scoring record of icon and 1966 World Cup winning forward Sir Bobby Charlton. He broke the appearance record for an outfield player after overtaking (Sir) David Beckham. He played at an elite level through injuries most players would take half a season off for. With his every movement, thought and facial expression vigilantly monitored, he performed as a gritty leader chock full of his characteristic awe-inspiring heart. He did it all.
And yet in football, you live and die by results. England players’ legacies are held to the almost criminally high standards set by those golden boys of the 1960s. Charlton. Hurst. Moore. Banks. Names that command chills. Thus, anything less than an international trophy is failure. Ask Lionel Messi and Argentinians about that. However, football just isn’t that individual of a sport. No superstar has single-handedly won their country a cup. Diego Maradona tried in 1986, but do not forget he was dutifully assisted by forces Jorge Valdano, Jorge Burruchaga, Oscar Ruggeri and a tight knit 3-5-2 formation shipping only three goals until the final. Hell, Pelé had an outright all star team in tow (the storied Brasil 1970 squad boasted the starlights of Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Gérson, etc. saying nothing of the fact prior to this he played alongside the genius Garrincha). Rooney had his entourage well equipped to return victorious on various occasions, but this revered class never lived up to expectations. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard never quite sussed out how to play together. Paul Scholes couldn’t replicate his sublime domestic performances for Manchester United at the international level. Michael Owen fizzled quickly after being himself a prodigy in his teenage years. Darius Vassell was not only alive but an active member of the team. And the goalkeeper’s nickname was “Calamity” so…there’s that. These aren’t excuses for Wayne, who I am sure would tell you he, too, could have done so much more, but just bullet points for a discussion on why his England career should not solely be based on medals.
Fast forward to the present though and I purely disagree with Wayne Rooney’s international retirement decision. Beckham always used to speak about never retiring from England. That that decision was never yours. If you were standing, breathing, pulsating you were available for a call-up. England retires from you. I appreciate that certain players are breaking down and need to focus on being fully fit for their club teams. I appreciate that a superstar on the decline may desire to not be a substitute on the sideline. I also appreciate tiring of the constant and usually vitriolic media scrutiny involved with donning the England kit. But, I still believe that even in those circumstances you avail yourself for your country. A selection is the highest honor irrespective of where you find yourself in your career.
Rooney is thirty one (I am aware that his body is probably closer to forty as he’s been annihilating professional defences since he was sixteen) and currently in some degree of prolific form. His charisma and presence alone are priceless. Players aspire to be him. And most importantly, he would make this squad! Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford are the three top English strikers. They are enough and plenty skilled, obviously, but a full squad usually has four out-and-out attackers. Using that template, I would definitively, without question, take Rooney on a plane to a qualifier or tournament ahead of Bournemouth’s Jermaine Defoe, Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge and Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck amongst others. Rooney’s experience on its own qualifies him for a spot on the bench for next summer’s World Cup in Russia. The side will be teeming with youth (Kane, Rashford, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, John Stones, Jack Butland, etc.) that will scream out for a proven leader. Not to mention, opponents still fear Wayne, and he would bring energy and that elite quality when chasing a goal late on in a match. His first touch has been lacking for two or three seasons now, but his technique and poise on the ball is still world class. And yes, his pace is no longer classified as “blistering” — far from it — and he may not be able to run match long with the youngsters in a wholly uptempo charge, but his talent and strength are invaluable. Rooney can also play in multiple positions and has previously done so for club and country. The number 9 up front is his favored slot. He wants to score goals. He wants to be in or around the box with shooting opportunities. But, he can handle himself in the middle of the park behind the striker(s) or even farther on the flank if necessary. It is this adaptability and earnestness to just get on the pitch which has surely endeared him to his colleagues. The man can play.
So, here we are. I applaud Wayne Rooney and am grateful for having the chance to witness the entirety of his England career. It truly glittered despite so many team disappointments along the way. If he was standing next to me I would thank him for countless spectacular memories and urge him to rethink, reassess and get into camp for one last foray towards World Cup success. To Wazza!