Fifteen and a half years ago, Wayne Rooney, then 17, was called up to the England national team. His reaction to the call-up when told about it by a member of the Everton staff was to ask whether Tony Hibbert, a teammate of Rooney’s on the Everton youth squad, had also been selected.
Rooney thought he had been selected to play for England’s under-19 team.
Fifteen years on, Rooney has played 120 times for England’s senior side. He has scored 53 goals, an England record. (Hibbert, a beloved utility player, appeared 265 times for Everton without scoring except for a memorable goal in an exhibition match, after which supporters invaded the field of play to celebrate this unlikely event).
Rooney’s 120th appearance for England came on Thursday in an international “friendly” against the United States at Wembley Stadium. Rooney retired from international football two years ago. This appearance was to honor the England legend and to raise money for his charitable foundation, which helps disadvantaged youths.
England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, was a long-serving regular on the England team Rooney debuted with in 2003. He recalls being incredulous that a 17 year-old was tapped to play for the national team. What’s this kid doing here, Southgate wondered before the first practice.
After two practice sessions, Southgate wondered no longer. He felt Rooney not only belonged on the squad, but deserved to start.
A year later, in the 2004 European Championships, Rooney was England’s best player. His performance caused Manchester United to snatch him away from Everton. It was bound to happen sooner or later. The 2004 tournament ensured that it happened sooner.
There was some criticism of the Rooney’s latest (and presumably final) call-up to the national team. A stunt, some called it.
Rooney himself said he agreed to it only because his appearance would not break Peter Shilton’s record for England “caps.” The legendary goalkeeper played 125 times for the Three Lions.
In my opinion, Rooney’s performances for DC United would have been good enough to justify an England call-up, had he not retired from international football. Sure, Rooney delivered these fantastic performances in MLS, a “bush league” by world soccer standards. But Costa Rica had players from MLS on the team that finished well ahead of England at the 2014 World Cup. So, of course, did the U.S. when it played a 1-1 draw against England at the 2010 World Cup.
Rooney’s performance against the U.S. on Thursday demonstrated that he belonged. In half an hour as a substitute, he delivered the two best passes of the night, both of which would have been good for assists with better finishing from the recipients. And late in the match, he nearly beat U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan with a clever low shot.
Before the match, Rooney received recognition from the crowd and a plaque from Harry Kane, the great young forward who, if he stays healthy, will likely break Rooney’ England scoring record many years from now. After the match, Rooney soaked up the adulation of the crowd. The U.S. team invited him into its locker room to present him with a gift.
Reflecting on his England career before Thursday’s match, Rooney said:
There was huge pressure on me and the team to perform. Sometimes that makes you try too hard and be anxious. Sometimes you put too much on yourself and it affects performances. That’s the story of my England career.
Yes, but only part of the story. In addition to holding England’s scoring record, he also holds England’s record for goals at European championship tournaments and is among the leaders in this category among all European players. And Rooney scored nine goals in England’s qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup. Only one player scored more in that round of European qualification.
Injuries and a three-game suspension for an overly aggressive tackle in the final qualifying match for the 2012 European championship are also part of the story. Circumstances, some Rooney’s fault, most not, seemed to conspire against Wayne at the big tournaments after 2004.
After his Wembley send-off, Rooney offered a more balanced take on his England career. He said:
I can look back and say to myself that I gave everything. It didn’t always work or pay off, but I did give everything I could to make England successful. I had my time. It didn’t work out as hoped in terms of trophies, but I’m happy with my international career and I’ll always look back on it as a proud achievement.
He should. Put aside the 1966 team that won the World Cup, and you’ll be hard pressed to name more than a few players who contributed as much as Rooney has to the England national team.
That England honored him at Wembley on Thursday is testimony to that fact.