Nick Westby: Why Three Lions fans should rise in salute of Wayne Rooney
How disappointing to see in recent days that the sport of Rooney-bashing is alive and well.
Is it any wonder that when asked at his press conference on Tuesday whether he would come back to finish his playing career in England, Rooney greeted it with a straight-faced ‘No’?
Who could forgive him? He must have been sat there thinking, ‘would you come back to this?’
This inquest arose because he has been invited by the Football Association to have a farewell game in England colours.
This sniping from ex-pros and members of the media was that his time has come and gone and the FA should look only to the future and ignore the past when it comes to international selection.
Talk about a mountain being made out of a molehill.
Rooney will probably play 20 minutes from the substitutes’ bench in England’s friendly with the USA at Wembley tonight.
He is not captaining the team. He is not demanding he play the No 10 role. He is not insisting on playing the full 90 minutes.
His presence does not detract from coach Gareth Southgate’s ability to run the rule over other future internationals whilst continuing to develop a team that reached the World Cup semi-finals in the summer and beat Spain in Seville a month ago.
The very fact Callum Wilson, of Bournemouth, is in the squad and will get a run out either tonight or on Sunday in the more meaningful Euro Nations League game with Croatia, is a smack in the face to the argument that Rooney’s presence takes the place of someone who actually might have a future within the England set-up.
He might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in a colourful career he might have rubbed up certain people the wrong way with some of the decisions he made.
But it is hard to question Rooney’s stats and his overall contribution to England over what was a 13-year career until its initial conclusion two years ago.
The 33-year-old is England’s record-scorer with 53 goals and has won more caps than any other outfield player with 119.
His contribution at major tournaments is negligible, outside that blistering breakthrough at Euro 2004, and it is that yardstick more than his longevity and the goals he scored, for which his international career is most often associated.
But the records he garnered is what has led to this farewell in a match that also has charitable connotations with proceeds going to the Wayne Rooney Foundation.
What is so bad, so inducing of scorn, about granting a great England player a farewell appearance? Caps should be earned on current merit not past exploits, that is fair enough, but is there so much difference between 119 caps and 120?
England’s World Cup-winning heroes of 1966 never got a swansong in front of an adoring public, and, as the years have gone by, that distance shown to so many of those gilded few has become a regrettable episode for the FA.
Other countries grant their superstars a farewell. Even Lukas Podolski got one for Germany.
But then few other countries treat their superstars with such scepticism. Certainly not the United States where Rooney is now building a life with his family, away from the holier-than-thou criticism he has faced in his own country.
Granted, elite status brings with it greater accountability, but to watch Rooney at his press conference on Tuesday was like witnessing a man on trial for a heinous crime, not simply a professional returning to kick a football around. It was an uncomfortable episode but one Rooney handled with great class, as he so often did from the time he was made captain of his country. He spoke with the courage of his convictions, and with great maturity, refusing to rise to the negative tone set by the media.
He will still be able to hold his own in international company tonight; that last-ditch tackle and crossfield ball to set up a winning goal for DC United recently typified the man more than the standard he is playing at in the MLS.
He was a great servant for his country. He deserves better than he has received. Rooney wants his farewell match to be the first of many for future stars. “I hope that in 10, 15 years time we’re sat here for someone like Harry Kane,” he said.
By which time, one hopes, the disdain for the man and the occasion will not not be so vehement.
Pundits and journalists have had their say on Rooney’s return. The true gauge of public opinion will come from the Wembley stands tonight, when England supporters should rise as one to acclaim a great player.