While it was the moment many eagerly anticipated, it was also the moment some despaired at. The debate surrounding England striker Wayne Rooney had intensified as he edged ever closer to becoming his country’s all-time leading goalscorer. And when the moment finally came, when Rooney scored from the penalty spot to secure a 2-0 victory over Switzerland in the Euro 2016 qualifying tie at Wembley this week, the deliberation continued.
For many it was a momentous occasion to embrace. The fact that Rooney has managed to overtake some of the greatest players to ever wear an England shirt – legends such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker – at the age of 29, with several years of international football surely still ahead of him, is a remarkable feat. In breaking the record, he also became the first England player to reach 50 international goals.
However, his overall contribution to his country and the manner in which he reached his landmark have been heavily scrutinised. Rooney’s detractors have identified a number of issues in respect of his form for his country, ranging from his record in major tournaments to the quality of the opposition he has racked up his goals against (his goal from the spot against San Marino to move level with Sir Bobby Charlton did nothing to dismiss this argument).
When considering Rooney’s England career so far, it is important to reflect on some of these issues. It remains sensible not to go overboard.
In terms of his performances at major tournaments, Rooney’s record remains very much below par. Though his tournaments since then have been hampered by injuries and suspensions, he has not come close to replicating his incredible form at the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Making his tournament debut as an 18-year-old, Rooney scored four goals and was one of England’s leading lights of the competition.
Rooney has largely cut a frustrated figure in each of his tournaments since then, although his goal against Uruguay in Sao Paulo last summer – his first ever in the World Cup finals – was a memorable moment and should help ease the pressure on him in future tournaments.
But this should not completely cloud the verdict on Rooney’s England career. He has not been the only member of England’s questionably named ‘golden generation’ to disappoint on the main stage.
Yet while many have been quick to deride the importance of Rooney’s goals, his record in qualifying campaigns should not be underestimated. 30 of his international goals – over half of his tally – have come in qualifying matches for international tournaments. He has been England’s leading goalscorer in their last two World Cup qualifying campaigns, and currently leads the way in their Euro 2016 campaign with seven goals.
But while critics may call to attention the standard of some of the opposing teams Rooney and England have encountered in that time, the Manchester United striker’s goalscoring record has mainly been down to his availability for his country. In an era where so many appear to put international football a distant second to club football in their list of priorities, Rooney’s commitment to his country, whatever the nature of the fixture, cannot be disputed.
He has also proved decisive in some pivotal games, particularly during Hodgson’s reign. Going into the final two matches of their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, England’s place at the finals in Brazil was far from guaranteed as they faced potentially difficult fixtures against Montenegro and Poland at Wembley. Rooney scored the opening goal in both games as England wrapped up qualification with two victories.
He also struck the winner in an enthralling away tie in Slovenia in June to ensure England’s 100% record in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign continued.
However, the main issue for some appears to be that Rooney’s presence at the top of the goalscoring charts seems to disparage the achievements of England legends from previous eras. For some, it appears to threaten the legacy left behind by the likes of Charlton, Gary Linker and Jimmy Greaves, all of whom Rooney has overtaken in reaching his landmark.
But that is a simple case of reading too much into the statistic. Even Rooney’s most ardent supporters will admit that his performances on the big stage have not come close to equaling some of his fellow leading goalscorers. He has not helped lead England to glory as Charlton did in 1966, nor have his performances evoke the emotion and nostalgia that Lineker’s did in 1986 and 1990.
Yet it is hard to begrudge Rooney his incredible achievement. The way in which modern qualifying campaigns are structured have meant the goals have been there for the taking, and he has been there to take them. The fact that even 12 years into his international career he still has so much more to accomplish is both a balanced view of what has already passed and an exciting incentive for what England fans will hope lies ahead.