Should Wayne Rooney play for England again?
This Thursday sees England boss Gareth Southgate name his latest squad for the Three Lions’ upcoming games at Wembley – a friendly against the USA, and then the final UEFA Nations League fixture against Croatia.
Last time his squad contained a lot of younger, uncapped players, but this time around England fans will be treated to the return of an older star – former England captain and record goalscorer Wayne Rooney.
According to reports that came out yesterday, the USA game will not be a regular international friendly – instead, the game will raise money for charity and be labelled as ‘The Wayne Rooney Foundation international’. And thus, Rooney – who retired from international football in August 2017 – will make a one-off return to claim his 120th England cap.
Immediately the internet has been awash with various opinions on Rooney’s return, and most of it has seemingly been negative. For many – this writer included – the return of Rooney simply doesn’t make sense, for a variety of different reasons.
Against Southgate’s ethos?
Firstly, ever since taking over the reins as England boss in October 2016, Southgate has pushed an ethos of youth, slowing removing older players who were at one time fixtures in the England squad and replacing them with younger, fresher talent. The likes of Joe Hart, Gary Cahill – and Rooney himself – have all been moved out, with plenty of uncapped players given a chance by the new boss.
So what kind of message does Rooney’s return send? Southgate has shown before that age isn’t necessarily an issue for him – he brought both Ashley Young and Jermain Defoe back from the international wilderness, but both men were on good form in the Premier League and didn’t appear to be shadows of their former selves like Rooney.
In this case however, he’s stated that the USA game is a good opportunity to “formally acknowledge Rooney’s immense contribution” and that a connection between the FA and former England players has always been special. It’s a view echoed by writer Henry Winter in his 2016 book 50 Years of Hurt, but then he never suggested handing out extra caps like this.
Essentially, this comes across as the kind of back-slapping behaviour more associated – unsurprisingly – with the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of which Rooney was a key part, and doesn’t feel in line with the ethos that Southgate has pushed in his squad to such success in the past year or so. Rooney has experience, of course – but then a lack of experience didn’t harm England at Russia 2018.
One point that the pro-Rooney camp has made in favour of his return is that the USA game is “only a friendly”. This is true, and it’s already been confirmed that Rooney will not be part of the squad to play Croatia in the UEFA Nations League three days later.
The new importance of friendly fixtures
That’s all well and good, but thanks in no small part to the Nations League, it could be argued that friendly games are now more important than ever. Friendlies have always been used for managers to experiment, be it with new players or new formations, but with the Nations League replacing many of them, any room for experimenting is now few and far between.
England’s friendly fixtures against Germany and Brazil in November 2017 for instance saw Southgate introduce uncapped younger players such as Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Joe Gomez and Dominic Solanke. While two of the four have received no further caps, at the time this didn’t feel like a risk as of course, there was nothing at stake.
On the flip side though, exciting youngsters Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and James Maddison were called into the England squad for this October’s Nations League fixtures against Croatia and Spain. And due to the competitive nature of those games, Southgate chose not to risk playing them – and so only Sancho was handed a cameo appearance.
Essentially then, friendly games should be considered even more valuable as a risk-free area to blood younger talent who haven’t quite established themselves as international players. The USA game might not matter in the bigger picture, but it could’ve been used to introduce the likes of Callum Wilson or Dominic Calvert-Lewin – young players who are on form in the Premier League – rather than bringing back Rooney.
Even if Rooney only appears in a ten-minute cameo role, if that means he gets in ahead of someone like Wilson, then that has to be seen as a wasted opportunity for Southgate. It’s easy to claim Rooney – who has scored 12 goals in 21 appearances in the US – has been on form too, but the gulf in quality between the Premier League and Major League Soccer is simply too huge to make a comparison.
Is Rooney really a legend?
Another point to consider is where Rooney truly sits on the pantheon of England legends. Yes, he’s the all-time top goalscorer for the Three Lions – hitting a total of 53 goals in his 119 appearances – but does he honestly belong up there with the likes of Moore, Charlton and Lineker? Many fans would probably argue no.
Realistically, the tale of Rooney in an England shirt sums up the tale of the ‘Golden Generation’ too – they promised a hell of a lot, but when it came down to it they delivered very little. After a blistering start to his international career that saw him score 4 goals in 4 games at Euro 2004, Rooney simply couldn’t live up to the hype.
Despite scoring bagfuls for Manchester United at a club level, Rooney only managed another 3 goals for England in major tournaments, and never truly played well on the highest stage after Euro 2004. If anything, his position in England’s starting 11 at Euro 2012, World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016 acted like a millstone around the neck of the squad; England were far more effective without him in 2012, for instance.
So if Rooney deserves such a send-off, why wasn’t the same offered to the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? Beckham’s international career ended with his Achilles injury in March 2010 and he never returned, while Gerrard and Lampard both slipped into international retirement after England’s shameful performances in the 2014 World Cup – ends hardly befitting their England careers, which were all at least as successful as Rooney’s.
Defenders of the decision to bring Rooney back have pointed to the same treatment offered to the likes of Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger by Germany, and Wesley Sneijder for the Netherlands, but in those cases, the players were all coming to the end of their active careers when they were given such a tribute.
Rooney, remember, was left in the cold after his final cap against Scotland in November 2016, and when he was offered a return – in September 2017 for England’s World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia – he turned it down and chose to retire from international football. So why bring him back over a year later?
How far can charity go?
Of course, at the crux of the matter here is the Wayne Rooney Foundation – a charity set up by the former England captain to raise money for disadvantaged children. All of the money raised from the USA game will be going to the charity, and only a cold-hearted individual would claim that as a bad thing.
But how far should charity go in the world of international football? The sport already has events like Soccer Aid – which sees celebrities and ex-professionals play a pretty competitive game to raise money for charity – but this is one step further again as prior to this weekend, the England/USA game was expected to be a regular international friendly.
If the FA are willing to do this – to bring a player back from international retirement at a time when the power of youth is being pushed so hard as a narrative for England’s international side – then what would stop them handing another cap to another former international – Beckham for instance – to raise even more money?
And dare I say it, are we only one step away from a philanthropy-inspired celebrity who happens to enjoy a kick-around being handed a one-off cap in a friendly game in order to bring in crowds and raise money? Where does this all end? That scenario is unlikely, granted – but in today’s celebrity-obsessed world, you just never know.
What would’ve been enough?
In the end, then, it would’ve been extremely effective to see the game named the Wayne Rooney Foundation International and all of the proceeds going to the charity, had the FA decided to simply honour Rooney before the game, during half-time, or after the game.
Some kind of ceremony could’ve been set up – to both thank him for his work in setting up the charity, and also to honour him for all of his service with England, for setting the record number of goals to be chased by the likes of Harry Kane, and for always giving his all – even if he didn’t always succeed.
But instead, we’re being given one indulgence too far – comparable to John Terry’s infamous ‘Guard of Honour’ during his final game with Chelsea – and the whole thing will likely leave a sour taste in the mouth, even if Rooney only appears for a ten-minute cameo.
It’s a situation that the FA should never have gotten themselves into in the first place, and it’s also sad that in the eyes of many, it’ll make a mockery of Rooney’s charity work.