England top scorer or major tournament flop: How will Wayne Rooney’s international career be remembered?


Wayne Rooney’s unexpected England return against the U.S national team on November 15 is a decision that has brought unnecessary criticism to the feet of Gareth Southgate and the Football Association.

Rooney, who retired from international football in 2017, will be part of Southgate’s squad at Wembley on Thursday in a fixture named ‘The Wayne Rooney Foundation international’.

While some argue that the sentiment is a welcome change from the pragmatic environment of professional football, there has been plenty of disapproval from fans and media alike.

Former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has slammed the situation as ‘a circus’, while Peter Shilton, England’s record appearance-maker, has suggested there are better ways to highlight Rooney’s charity activities.

It’s not the first time that Rooney has found himself as the focus of negative attention while representing his country, so how will his legacy be viewed after his final Wembley appearance?

Rooney made his England debut against Australia at Upton Park in 2003, breaking Theo Walcott’s record as the youngest ever Three Lions player, but it was his impact at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal that saw him tipped as the man to deliver international success to the long-suffering Three Lions.

“I remember when he first got into the squad – the youthfulness, the bravery, the courage he showed, particularly at his first major tournament in Portugal. He was a breath of fresh air,” former team-mate Phil Neville previously said of Rooney. “No-one enjoyed playing for England more than Wayne Rooney.”

It was the teenager’s marauding shifts at the forefront of the England attack which endeared him to those in the stands; a contagious urgency which soon transferred to those operating around him. 

Rooney scored four goals in three group stage-appearances at Euro 2004 before his time in the tournament was cut short because of a broken foot during England’s quarter-final exit against Portugal. Rooney would fail to replicate his success at another major tournament for the rest of his career, however, with the 2006 World Cup an unmitigated disaster for the then-Manchester United star.

Tantrums, red cards and fights with fans

Rooney cannot be hailed as the country’s finest ever player because of his incompetent performances in major tournaments – an argument which is regularly stated when the conversation is presented in the mainstream media. A harsh viewpoint, perhaps, but Rooney’s tempestuous relationship with his own supporters will continue to muddy his legacy.

The 2006 World Cup finals in Germany saw history repeat itself for England. Pre-tournament excitement was amplified as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side won two of their Group B games to progress into the knockout rounds as winners.  A 1-0 victory over Ecuador in the round of 16 set up a mouth-watering quarter-final tie with Portugal in which Rooney would steal the show. 

Then came a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, a wink from Cristiano Ronaldo, and the nation was in pieces once more. 

“It was a low point for him and me. In 2006 we all thought we had a good chance to reach a final and maybe win it. When I say we, I mean the players, the staff and myself. We were convinced that there was no better team than England at that World Cup,” Eriksson said of the incident. “We could have won it but, when you get a red card in the quarter-final of a World Cup, it’s hard.”

Rooney’s frustrations would again be on show four years later at the 2010 South Africa World Cup, following a dour goalless draw with Algeria in Cape Town. Reacting to negative shouts from the crowd, Rooney’s lashed the supporters in an explosive rant into a nearby camera as he left the pitch.

Rooney then missed the start of Euro 2012 through suspension and scored just once more at a World Cup – a second-half tap-in from three yards during England’s 2-1 defeat to Uruguay at the 2014 tournament. 

In total, Rooney scored just one goal in 11 appearances at World Cup finals from 21 attempted shots.

Much has been made about the failings of England’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’, and Rooney must take some of the criticism. His overall record speaks for itself, though, and his endless devotion for his country will never be questioned.

England’s all-time top scorer

With 53 England goals to his name, Rooney stands as the Three Lions’ record goalscorer. He will also move a cap closer to Shilton at the top of the appearance rankings on Thursday, leaving him just five short of the former goalkeeper.

His record is set to stand for years to come, too, with Harry Kane the only active player on course to surpass Rooney as the country’s highest scorer.

Kane has scored 19 goals in 34 senior appearances for England and, injuries permitting, should have plenty of appearances still to come.

Bobby Charlton is currently second in the rankings, having scored 49 goals in 106 caps between 1958 and 1970.

Gary Lineker (48 in 80 games), Jimmy Greaves (44 in 57), and Michael Owen (40 in 89) make up the top five.

Rooney’s return

There are plenty of sticking points in the discussion as to whether or not the Football Association have made a mistake with offering Rooney a romantic goodbye.

England come into the friendly fixture having united the country on the back of a wildly exciting World Cup campaign in Russia and a 3-2 victory over a Spain side which was unbeaten in each of their 38 competitive home games before the Nations League meeting. 

Southgate has assembled a youthful England squad which is developing into one of the most exciting groups in recent history. To invite Rooney back into the fold after a two-year exclusion in what is being labelled as a marketing stunt is not only unnecessary to highlight the impressive charity arm of the Rooney family, but it threatens to unsettle the current conditions and somewhat cheapens what it means to represent your country.

The 33-year-old’s place in the history of English football has already be written and goodbyes on the international stage have already been shared, albeit quietly. 

So talk of Rooney taking the No.10 shirt from Raheem Sterling is not only offensive to the Manchester City star, but to everything he and his team-mates have worked for over the past 18 months.

“I am truly humbled and hugely excited to play for England at Wembley again,” Rooney said. “I would like to thank Gareth Southgate and The FA for inviting me back and helping to support my Foundation in the process.

“Playing for England was the greatest honour of my career – so winning my 120th, and final, cap will be a particularly special moment for me. It’s fitting that the match will be against the USA and I hope that both sets of fans enjoy the game.”

Fitting as it may be, Rooney’s return will continue to divide debate until the fixture is over.

What isn’t in question, however, is that he remains one of the greatest players to ever don an England shirt and that his unrelenting support for the Three Lions is what young players should found themselves on.

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