I have been on holiday this week with my wife and 20 month old daughter, soaking up our last bit of sun for the year. Whilst on holiday, I have been teaching my little girl the art of building sand castles on the beach and this has led me to draw some unlikely parallels with the current plight of Wayne Rooney.
If you have seen the news over the last few days, you might have heard that interim manager Gareth Southgate decided to drop his captain from the England team for this week’s World Cup qualifier against Slovenia. It was the first time in his career that our one-time “leading light” had been dropped from the national team and it has led to much debate over whether this signals the end of his international career. In fact, the media and fans had been debating his place in England’s first XI for several months, if not years, prior to Southgate’s decision this week. For many it was long overdue.
Rooney has been trying to reinvent himself as a central midfielder, since it has become clear to him (and others) that he no longer possesses the pace or dynamism to trouble defences as he once did. The acquisitions of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial allied to the emergence of Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford has rendered Rooney surplus to requirements in United’s forward line. Against that backdrop, Rooney firmly saw his future role in the mould of a deeper lying playmaker – a Paul Scholes type perhaps; akin to the positional shift Ryan Giggs made in his latter playing days for Manchester United.
It would be fair to say that his transformation to date has not gone to plan, despite the fact that both club and country have generously afforded him the opportunity to reinvent himself in this way.
We can argue for hours over whether Wayne Rooney’s international career to date (as it is not yet over) should be considered a success. Measured against the objective statistics that he is now England’s most capped outfield player ever (118 caps) and all-time top scorer (53 goals), it would seem incredibly harsh to render it a failure. But we all know that statistics alone don’t tell the full story. Many of his goals were scored in meaningless friendlies and uncompetitive qualifiers against lesser nations. It is undeniable that, bar his sensational impact at Euro 2004 when he first burst onto the scene, he has underperformed in major tournaments for his country. His fearless displays against Switzerland and Croatia in 2004 at the age of 18 gave us a tantalising taste; we all hoped for more as he matured, but unfortunately that would prove to be his zenith representing his country.
However, in my opinion his difficulties in tournaments since 2004 cannot be attributed to a lack of effort or desire. I believe he has always proudly represented his country, and given his all for the cause. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise. For one reason or another it just hasn’t happened for him, much to the frustration of his those desperate for him to emulate his early international form as a prodigal teenager. I imagine that there will be nobody more frustrated than himself. He went into the 2006 World Cup with a metatarsal injury. In 2008 England failed to qualify under Steve McClaren’s watch. Ever since, it could be argued that the supporting cast has not been strong enough for Rooney to flourish and he has not been able to carry the weight of expectation on his own.
So his treatment in parts of the media and amongst elements of the England fanbase over the past few months does sit uncomfortably with me. In particular, the reported booing of him at Wembley against Malta last weekend was unsavoury and uncalled for.
His relationship with the England fans has been tumultuous at times; none more so than when he criticised them down the camera lens for booing the team off the field following an uninspiring goalless draw against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup. His connection with the failed “golden generation” is probably also relevant in the England fans’ psyche and partially explains their animosity, along possibly with an anti-United sentiment amongst English football fans in general.
Of course, people are entitled to their opinion and the evidence for his exclusion from England’s starting lineup was building. Arguably, England’s best performance in recent times came in a 3-2 friendly win against Germany earlier this year without him (albeit a meaningless friendly in which Germany fielded an understrength defence and had withdrawn some key players prior to the winner). For many years Wayne Rooney was indispensable as our talismanic striker, but having been ousted from that role it is questionable whether a player with very little experience of playing in midfield should walk straight into England’s engine room ahead of other specialists in that position. Having been chosen in that role, team performances and results have consistently underwhelmed and he has rightfully been deemed partially culpable.
However, is it justified for fans to verbally abuse their own player on the pitch if he is giving 100%? If you no longer think he justifies his place in the team then your anger should be directed at the managers who continue to pick him. To jeer Wayne Rooney is to disregard the contribution he has made for his country over the past 12 years.
For me the debate isn’t whether or not he should be included in the team. Rather should we afford him more respect when dissecting his career and holding him personally to account for the national team’s troubles, past and present. Yes, with Wayne Rooney England have disappointed but without him we may have been staring into the abyss. His consistency in qualifying campaigns has at least ensured our participation in all but one of the seven tournaments during the period of his involvement.
For years, Wayne Rooney was a beacon of hope for England’s fans. We built him up as a potential ballon d’or winner, at one time compared with Messi and Ronaldo. In the end he never lived up to those exorbitant expectations – those two continued their upward trajectory whereas he somewhat stagnated, perhaps due to a less dedicated lifestyle – but that shouldn’t diminish his actual contribution to the national team.
This brings me back to sand castles. When building them with my daughter I noticed that, despite the relatively large amount of time she spends loading her bucket and diligently and carefully constructing the sand castle, she inevitably then feels the unavoidable urge to knock it down. Likewise, it strikes me that in England we have an unhealthy habit of building up our footballers and, when we invariably lose patience, we then proceed to destroy them with almost as much glee. Wayne Rooney is just the latest example.
This is part of the problem with our national team. Public opinion is so polarised and vociferous that we constantly undermine the next generation through burdening them firstly with unrealistic expectations, and then with the spectre of assassination by media and fans alike, merely perpetuating the cycle of underachievement. Players play with fear rather than freedom of expression. Iceland was a new nadir and one that will likely blight the new crop in the post-Rooney era.
Regardless of our travails, Wayne Rooney has been a good servant to the national team. He may not have met the English public’s huge expectations of him but nevertheless I feel that he should be appreciated for what he has achieved rather than booed for his shortcomings.