On the basis of a Portuguese summer four years ago, two England managers have come and gone clinging to the belief that if Wayne Rooney performs then the problems of the England team itself will fade away. The man himself has never quite repeated the impact he made at Euro 2004, but if he is to be believed now, Rooney has never played as well for England as he did in the second half against Croatia in September.
That was what Rooney said this week as he contemplated tomorrow's 2010 World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan. Better than his two goals against Croatia in Euro 2004 or the two against Switzerland in the same tournament? "In Euro 2004, because I scored a few goals, everyone remembers that," Rooney said. "But I think I've played better than that many times where I haven't scored. In the last game against Croatia I really enjoyed it."
It was "probably the best 45 minutes I've played for England" and that went for the team as well. That second half in Zagreb was, Rooney added, the best England performance he has been a part of in his 46 caps, for the way England seized hold of the game. "We controlled the game, we were always comfortable in possession, and a threat nearly every time going forward," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I think we can play even better than that, hopefully in the upcoming games."
Given that Kazakhstan, with their comic connotations, are ripe for a traditional England cock-up, that counts as a bold statement. Rooney is a complex character, a difficult player for any manager to get the best from when you take into account the imponderables of his best position, his ideal strike partner and, of course, his volatility. At Euro 2004, before he broke his toe, it all looked blissfully simple for an 18-year-old ready to conquer the world but, for his country at least, that has not been the case since.
Funnily enough, Rooney, who does not turn 23 until later this month and could win his 50th cap against Slovakia in March, said he felt he should have played more times for his country. He bemoaned the games missed through injury and suspension and the failure to reach Euro 2008 with the wistfulness of an old pro. "I was speaking to the lads about it a couple of days ago and I'm quite disappointed to be honest," he said. "If all had gone well, I could have more than 60. I'm a bit frustrated. It's not bad though, but as a player you want to play for your country and win things."
Despite his goal against Croatia in September there has been a gradual acceptance that Rooney is never likely to be a prolific international goalscorer (he has 15), although he is no longer judged on goals alone. His average of goals to time spent on the pitch is one every 219 minutes – not good – but he seems a bit more at peace with idea of himself as an occasional goalscorer. "There were times when I've played very well, but just because I've not scored I've been criticised, which I'm not too worried about," he said. "Being a forward, if you don't score you always get criticised. I'm aware of that."
Asked where he would play himself if it was him picking the team, Rooney said cautiously that he would prefer the role playing "just off the front man". "That's what I enjoy doing most," he said. "But at United I have been used in different roles, out wide a lot. I've no real complaints. If you don't play well and you don't win it gets seen as a bigger problem than when you do win.
"I like playing in behind the forward. Probably it's because you are getting the ball more. I don't like to be out of the game too long. Some forwards can stay up and not touch the ball, they just look to score." Mentioning no names, of course, but that is the approach favoured by Michael Owen, and to a lesser extent Jermain Defoe, that Capello is unwilling to accommodate within the current England team. Whether Rooney and Emile Heskey prove to be the long-term solution to the problem is, taking history into account, unlikely. Capello believes that above all he lacks a goalscorer: he does not have faith in Owen and the statistics tell him that it is not Rooney.
Rooney has never quite delivered on the promise of four years ago, a point he was prepared to concede when contemporaries like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were mentioned. "Those players you're speaking of deserve to be up for world football player of the year for the way they've played," he said. "Hopefully, I can get there one day. If I keep working and progressing I'd like to think I could. But as I've always said, it's not about me, it's about the team."