Wayne Rooney’s one-off England appearance offers the chance of a proper goodbye. - (2021)
Hopefully, by the time Wayne Rooney actually takes the pitch against the United States, cooler heads will have prevailed; Rooney’s inclusion in the current England squad, albeit with an asterisk against his name, is harmless-yet-meaningful gesture, and it should be applauded. At the moment that isn’t the case, but maybe by next week some perspective will have entered the debate.
John Cross raised a good point in The Mirror on Tuesday: The Football Association, with particular reference to Bobby Moore, hasn’t always been good at treating past players with enough reverence. It’s sadly far too late to correct any of those wrongs specifically, but this willingness to re-embrace Rooney and what that represents is certainly welcome.
Does it undermine the value of England caps and the integrity of the squad? Not really – or at least, only in the minds of those who take its value far too literally. It’s one game, it’s a friendly, and – if anything – the newer, younger players included by Gareth Southgate will likely benefit from the contact with Rooney. Whatever the perception of his playing career, he is still a European Cup winner and remains one of the most decorated British footballers of the modern era; that’s a hard intangible to price, but his interaction with the current group of players is hardly likely to have a negative effect.
Maybe he also deserves this moment. Rooney was unfortunate in a sense, because his career occured at a time when the national team’s relationship with its public was terribly strained. He may not have been part of the loathed Golden Generation, but supporters were always slightly quicker to judge (and deride) him because of the legacy left by those players. If Gerrard, Lampard and Beckham won their caps to the sound of feverish hyperbole and ludicrous expectations, the backdrop Rooney encountered – certainly from his mid-twenties onwards – was much harder and much more cynical. He captained England at a time when they weren’t just distrusted, but openly mocked and regularly shelled with friendly fire. And, as the most luminous talent and often the captain, he inevitably became an unwitting symbol of English inadequacy and frequent target. Sometimes that was warranted, often it was just too easy to single him out.
When he eventually broke and bettered Sir Bobby Charlton’s scoring record, he had also inarguably passed his sell-by date as a player and the perception existed that he had only remained in the squad to displace Charlton because it would have been so uncomfortable to deny him that opportunity. The result was an underwhelming response: he broke the record on paper, but not in many people’s hearts. Charlton is Charlton, a deity of the game in perpetuity. Rooney is just… Rooney. Given what we know now about England’s collective deficiencies and how much brighter the future looks with various remedies applied, the logical conclusion is that the country was lucky to have him. Or, at least, that a fallow period of the team’s history would have been far, far bleaker without him.
So, as time goes on attitudes should soften. Rooney can never be universally loved by England fans, partly because they have an increasingly inability to look beyond club their club loyalties, but this moment – this ten, fifteen, or twenty-five minutes against the United States – is an opportunity to put petty grievances aside, apply some context, and properly applaud Rooney from the stage. It will be a day of many different things and should hopefully raise plenty of money for charity, but the hope is also that it repairs what many would now consider to have been a wrong. Rooney wasn’t a great in the same way as Bobby Moore and he isn’t chiselled into the national psyche like Charlton, Lineker or Gascoigne, but what he achieved individually is hard to argue with.
With him now out of sight and mind, and far removed from a newscycle which he dominated for close to a decade, it should be far easier for us all to be gracious.
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