London- There is an irony that Wayne Rooney, a player plenty, including the England manager, had considered surplus to requirements last season, has chosen to retire from international football just as the national team were wondering whether they might be in need of him again. Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley are in rehabilitation. Other forwards have yet to find form this term. Cue Gareth Southgate’s telephone call this week, the tone of which, Rooney implied, was that the former captain’s presence might be beneficial in the squad for the forthcoming qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia.
Yet, in the six weeks since he held court in the People’s Club Lounge at Goodison Park and insisted he had no intention of retiring from the national set-up, something had changed. Perhaps that eye-catching start to his second coming at Everton, with goals in his first two Premier League appearances for Ronald Koeman’s side and energy aplenty in the draw at the Etihad Stadium on Monday, convinced him he should concentrate his efforts on inspiring an exciting and emerging force; to put Everton first and rekindle that old love affair after the messy divorce from his boyhood club 13 years ago.
To do that will require focus as well as fitness. A forward approaching his 32nd birthday would easily recall how beneficial quitting the international stage had been for Paul Scholes, his former team-mate at Manchester United, in prolonging a club career. The same could be said for Alan Shearer. Southgate was left with the impression from their conversation that Rooney partly puts this month’s resurgence in club form down to the fact he enjoyed a proper summer break, albeit with spinning classes interrupting his family holidays and a personal trainer in tow. His wife, Coleen, is expecting the couple’s fourth child next year. Maybe the Russia World Cup, which he had insisted would mark his swansong, might not have been quite so appealing in that context.
Then there is the issue of his role within the set-up. Southgate wants two players for each position in his side, but Rooney, even rejuvenated on Merseyside, was always unlikely to have displaced either Dele Alli in attacking midfield or Harry Kane up front in a first-choice England lineup. A new generation of players is making its mark. A veteran of six major tournaments had no desire either to block the progress of “the exciting players Gareth is bringing through” or, indeed, be reduced to a bit-part role. This was a chance for a clean break, a departure on his own terms. Given the service he has put in since that debut at 17 years and 111 days, he deserved that much at the very least.
In truth, and even with Monday’s crisp finish against City fresh in the memory, his retirement does not come as a surprise. The tributes had already been written, penned in Ljubljana last autumn when he was first dropped from Southgate’s side, and again in March when he was omitted from the squad, despite insisting he was fit, for the friendly in Germany and World Cup qualifier against Lithuania. It had long since become apparent England were moving on, particularly with Rooney’s contribution at Old Trafford no longer as integral. So, in his absence, the time felt right for reflections on an international career which had spanned 13 years and set him apart.
The numbers are his most glittering legacy. No Englishman can match his 53 goals for his country, the first of which was plundered at the age of 17 years and 317 days in Skopje while Macedonia fans burned England flags up in the stands. He captained his country at 24, no other outfield player boasts as many as his 119 caps while he has had 104 team-mates down the years. Those are exceptional tallies that set him apart, and the fact that his involvement at this level rather petered out over the last 11 months should not sully that record. When people consider David Beckham’s England career, they do not fixate over the succession of token cameos from the bench as his playing days wound down. So what if 10 of the midfielder’s last 12 caps were gained as a substitute? Rooney, at a fiercely competitive level, was the go-to man for five national managers.
And yet, for all the records as evidence of the longevity of his quality, the debate over what Rooney might have been will never truly subside. That he never illuminated a major finals after that jaw-dropping debut tournament, at Euro 2004, will forever count against him. The tearaway street footballer, fresh out of Croxteth, had set the bar so high in those early years and, while he was establishing himself as United’s record goalscorer and winning five Premier League titles and a Champions League, England saw the best of him only in qualifying. Injury or indiscipline blighted him at finals, and each major tournament, from Poland to Brazil, saw him confronted by the same topic for discussion: “Is this finally the moment? Can you finally rekindle that form from 2004 and make an impact at a finals?”
Underachievement in tournaments remains a collective issue, of course, but Rooney was the talisman; the figure considered England’s one true world-class talent. With that came more expectation, more pressure, and those moments when he occasionally cracked under the weight of it all: flashpoints in Croatia and Cape Town spring to mind. Yet he should not become the scapegoat for English failings. There are plenty of others who have thrived with a club side but failed to hoist their national team to the ultimate prizes, even if that regret will linger with him longest on the outside looking in. That desire “to have been part of a successful England tournament side” will nag at him forever.
Maybe Southgate can inspire such success in future, but it will not be with Rooney in the ranks. The time is right and everyone should benefit, from the youngsters making their mark in the national team, to Everton and the veteran himself. He can sit back and reflect with pride at those records he established. His personal achievements will take some beating.
The Guardian Sport