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England’s ‘Great Player’ Problem

Soccer ball on ground

Consider an international footballer. A striker. Having been picked for four international tournaments in succession he has scored a total of two goals. Time has not been kind, stripping him of pace and making him vulnerable to injury. There’s a major tournament in 2016. Do you pick him a fifth time?

That player is Wayne Rooney. He’s the England captain. How about now?

This is a problem that England manager Roy Hodgson is contending with, but it’s not a new one. Let’s first deal with Euro 2004, the tournament that I didn’t mention up top. Rooney scored four goals in that tournament, a potently raw rumbling blend of pace and aggression. It was his first and his best tournament. But twelve years down the line, is that performance enough to get him picked?

In 2006, 2010 and 2012, combined with club form, it was enough to get him in the squad despite either being just recovered from, or in the process of recovering from, injury. In 2014 he was at his fittest, taking a personal trainer on holiday with him before the World Cup in Brazil. He scored two goals in four tournaments, a winner against Ukraine in 2012 and a consolation in the defeat by Uruguay in 2014.

So, what led to his inclusion when unfit? A half fit Rooney is a talent stifled and frustrated by the limits of his own body, clearly demonstrated in his overboil of rage in 2006 and his grumble at England supporters in 2010. With the expectation of the nation, the burden of inspiration placed upon him, England with Rooney becomes a one Wayne team, play channelled through a player who is incapable of being the fulcrum that his reputation insists he is.

His record in regular season qualifying games is what sustains him, and it’s a fine one, but also reveals one of the possible reasons why Rooney has failed to have an impact on summer tournaments. The international break comes within a season and Rooney’s ability to complete a 38 (plus cup) game season isn’t in doubt, but his ability to extend that into June and July definitely is. But beyond the player, there’s a problem with the country he represents.

Rooney is undoubtedly a top player, easily the best English player of his generation. But England has great trouble with the idea and the narrative of the ‘great player’ and have repeatedly sacrificed the concept of an effective team in order to accommodate it’s ‘great players’.

The purgatorial attempts to accommodate both Gerrard and Lampard, despite that combination never actually working, was a particularly awful example of this. It even resulted in the retirement of a player better than the pair of them, Paul Scholes, who tired of being shuffled around the midfield to compensate for the dysfunction in the centre.

The ‘great player’ and the subsequent public clamour for their inclusion is centred around the idea that England would be worse without their presence. Repeated articles down the years vehemently insist that it is impossible to not take Rooney, that it would be madness to exclude him from selection. It is a view rooted in sentiment and nostalgia, dismissing the evidence of the present in favour of desire and hope. 

It implies that Rooney can be some kind of inspirational catalyst, a Maradona ‘86 or Cruyff ‘74, when he isn’t, or at least hasn’t been for twelve years now. It also shows a lack of imagination and a lack of confidence that England can produce a team which is both balanced, competitive and talented, a team that doesn’t rely solely on one player performing freakishly above their established standard of mediocrity.

England striker Wayne Rooney (23125438141)

Is Wayne Rooney a better finisher than Harry Kane right now? Does he have a higher work-rate than Jamie Vardy? Is he able to bring pace and control to the flanks like Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck or Daniel Sturridge? Can he play a midfield role in the way Delle Ali does? 

Is the brightest English footballing talent of the 2000’s able to fit into the England team, or does the England team have to be picked to fit around him, irrespective of whether that actually makes the team better. Is that really acceptable, given the returns that repeated tournaments employing that strategy has produced in the last ten years?

Dropping Rooney, benching Rooney, picking a team that is balanced without Rooney would mean being able to imagine an England without Rooney. That’s a hard sell, particularly with the captaincy in his grasp, a reward for the thirteen years of toil in an England shirt. He is the establishment, the senior squad member who finds himself surrounded by the exciting bright young things of English football, like he once was.

CRI ENG 24 06 2014 9651

Maybe it’s not time, but only because England isn’t ready to admit that their biggest talent has been burning on the international stage, not brightly as hoped, but smouldering in sulky darkness. Instead they prefer to hold out hope that maybe this time it’ll be different. Just like last time. And the time before. Hold onto the hope. Believe.

When that hope is finally released, when the this time becomes the last time and the belief is drained, it may be time to address an as yet unspoken and even uglier truth. Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s glittering international tournament career ended 26 minutes into the Euro 2004 quarter final, with Jorge Andrade’s challenge and the snap of a metatarsal. It’s just nobody wanted it to.

Categories: English/UK Football

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John Palethorpe

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