By Will Fremont-Barnes
More than 80,000 fans in attendance at Wembley on Saturday teatime will be rewarded for turning up to another mundane qualifier with a landmark occasion. Slovenia’s visit hardly sets the pulses racing, particularly as they have regressed since running England close at the World Cup four years ago, but Wayne Rooney’s 100th cap for his country is a day worth celebrating, a chance to focus on a player whose contribution has been, on the whole, underappreciated.
Say what you like about Rooney, and people often do, but it is impossible to reach a century of caps by accident. For successive England bosses, from Sven-Goran Eriksson to Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello to Roy Hodgson, Rooney has been the first name on the team-sheet since making his debut at Upton Park against Australia aged 17. Those managers have been in the game long enough to know a good player when they see one, not only persisting with him but building the team around him.
No wonder he is on course to break Bobby Charlton’s all-time goal-scoring record. In fact, with such easy opponents on the horizon in this qualifying campaign, Rooney has a wonderful chance to reach the 50 goal landmark without any trouble at all, needing just seven to surpass Charlton’s tally. Rooney has faced accusations throughout his England career that he is simply a flat-track bully, yet has scored goals consistently over the last 13 years, netting against illustrious nations like Brazil, Holland and Argentina as well as some of the lesser lights in European football.
It is that longevity alone that sets Rooney apart from the rest. Right from the very beginning, it was clear for all to see that he would be an England regular for years to come. Exciting though they are, the same cannot be said with as much certainty about Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, neither of whom have achieved half as much as Rooney had in his career. At the same age as Sterling, Rooney had already been the subject of a £25 million transfer and scored a hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United. By the time he was Barkley’s age, he was on his way to collecting a first Premier League medal.
Yet you could be forgiven for thinking that Rooney has been a disappointment given all of the criticism he receives. The clamour for him to be removed from the starting eleven during the summer in Brazil was absurd, a knee-jerk reaction on the basis that he spurned a couple of opportunities against Italy in the opening game. That was evidence of a growing anti-Rooney sentiment, both amongst supporters and the media, for which there are a number of explanations.
The reason why Rooney’s legacy as an international footballer is still debated is because he, along with the rest of the ‘golden generation’, is notable for his inability to perform on the biggest stage when it comes to knockout tournament football. Having taken Euro 2004 by storm as a teenager, announcing himself as one of the outstanding young prospects in world football, his performances at major tournaments since then have been substandard. The goal Rooney scored against Uruguay in Sao Paulo during the summer removed his World Cup hoodoo, yet he was upstaged monumentally in that game by Luis Suarez, a player with whom he compares unfavourably in high-pressure internationals.
Rooney also receives criticism is that he has never quite reached the heights expected of him in an England shirt after his superb performances at Euro 2004. There was nothing to stop him having the same kind of influence that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have had for their club and country, yet his career has panned out slightly differently, his game more about bursts of brilliance than constant involvement in build-up play.
When we eventually look back on Rooney’s career as a whole, it will be moments from his time with Manchester United that spring to mind. Barring the arguments he had with Alex Ferguson towards the end of the Scot’s reign, Rooney’s years at Old Trafford have been hugely successful. His overhead kick against in the Manchester derby, the springboard for United’s title triumph that season, is just one of a number of high-profile interventions from Rooney.
Although it is easy to look at Rooney with a wistful sense of what might have been, to complain about the absence of international medals in his trophy cabinet, there is nevertheless plenty for him, and us, to celebrate as he reaches this significant milestone for England. His years of service, putting him in the same league as the likes of David Beckham, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton in the 100 club, deserves greater recognition.
Too much of the criticism about Rooney is the product of frustration that he never fulfilled his early promise. Putting that aside, only after he has retired, most likely as England’s most capped player and leading goal-scorer, will we appreciate the extent to which we took him for granted.