x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Much ado about nothing: Wayne Rooney deserves to represent England one last time in front of home fans

He won 119 caps and scored a record 53 goals since 2003. For that alone he deserves recognition in friendly against United States on Thursday

Retiring star Wayne Rooney deserves to say goodbye to England's supporters. Getty Images
Retiring star Wayne Rooney deserves to say goodbye to England's supporters. Getty Images

Wayne Rooney’s return to play for England for the 120th and final time against the United States on Thursday has divided opinion in England.

Rooney retired from international football last year and this one-off is meant as a farewell, with some of the proceeds going to the 33 year old’s charity.

England home friendlies already attract big crowds – an average of 79,000 for the four played at Wembley in the last year. But the controversy has only served to boost interest, while Rooney’s excellent form in the United States adds relevance.

Rooney wants to thank England’s fans and most of them want to thank him now enough water has passed under the bridge since he was under fire in his final games for England. England’s record appearance-maker Peter Shilton, with 125 caps, has complained that international caps should not be given out like gifts.

Rooney won 119 caps and scored a record 53 goals since 2003. For that alone he deserves recognition and the honour will add focus to the night.

It is, after all, only a friendly. Is it that big a deal in a sport where sentiment and romance is so important?

It has not been handed out like a bag of sweets. Rooney put in some hard graft for his country. Nor will he be a liability, either, as he is playing against opposition from a league where he stands out. He has looked sharper this year than he did when he was last an England player.

His reply to Shilton is judicious: “If I was in a position where this game was going to take the record off Shilton, for instance, I would never have played in the game. I would never have done that.

"But I think the game isn’t going to affect an outfield player or Peter Shilton in that aspect.”

Players departures from football clubs are often hurried or in unexpected circumstances, without a goodbye. If they are let go by a club, they tend to disagree with the decision and think they had another year left. Slighted, they take a couple of years to come to terms with the rejection.

The context also changes.

When Rooney last played for England two years ago, he had scored only once in the previous nine games. He lost his place after 13 years as a mainstay because he was no longer worth inclusion. England improved without him and reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

He himself conceded that there were “maybe times when I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should".

It was the same with Manchester United. He was only 31, but he had been playing top-level football since 16 and it showed as he slowed.

He was under heavy criticism from United fans who knew he was a club hero, but could see he was not the player he had been. Jose Mourinho handled his captain well, using him sparingly but enough to give him a chance of breaking the club’s goalscoring record.

Was that an act of charity, too? No, it was sensible use of a declining player who was still the club captain, still the best-paid player and still a huge influence in the dressing room.

All sides parted amicably.

Jose Mourinho, left, made sensible use of Wayne Rooney, who was a declining player at Manchester United but still a huge influence in the dressing room. Reuters
Jose Mourinho, left, made sensible use of Wayne Rooney, who was a declining player at Manchester United but still a huge influence in the dressing room. Reuters

_____________

Read more:

Wayne Rooney misses in penalty shoot-out as DC United knocked out of MLS play-offs

English FA to impose historic bag ban at Wembley for England-United States friendly

England's worst ever players: Michael Ricketts, Scott Carson, Jon Flanagan and more

_____________

What is not in contest is that Rooney is enjoying a wonderful end to his career in the United States with DC United.

His arrival alone revolutionised a bottom of the table side, which surged up the table to grab a play-off place. Crowds sold out as word spread and Rooney’s teammates spoke glowingly of his professionalism and normality. He insisted, for example, on rooming with a teammate rather than demand his own room.

Many European football stars go to America as a lifestyle choice – some unaware of the huge distances they will need to travel as an MLS player – and not all maintain their previous level of performance.

Rooney has been the best player and has enjoyed the experience so much that he insists that he will finish his playing career in the US, where his four boys have settled into a new school.

It is an Indian summer to a great career for a player long regarded as the best English footballer of his generation.

And, by playing one final game for the country he served so well, alongside teammates who respect him and watched by fans, especially younger ones, who want to see him one last time, where is the harm?