From Wayne Rooney; an apology. "When I first started playing for England I did really well and the last couple of years haven't been as good as I can be, I know that," he says. "My club form's been fine, there's no problem with that. But when I've been away with England probably over the last year or so I haven't played as well as I can do. I can't see why that is and obviously I want to try and put it right."
Well, "the big man" is back. Rooney is fit for tomorrow's European Championship qualifier at home to Estonia and is expected to start. The "big man" tag – "the big man is back in town" is what he is alleged to have said to team-mates after he walked into the England team hotel at last year's World Cup – came after a swift recovery from injury having broken the fourth metatarsal in his right foot.
Injury has hit again this season – another metatarsal misery – while Rooney has played just 315 minutes of the 810 in this qualifying campaign so far. That would be easy mitigation for his indifferent form but the Manchester United striker knows that his faltering fitness is not the only reason why he is yet to emulate the heights of Portugal three years ago.
That was also the last time he scored a competitive goal for his country – striking twice in the 4-2 win over Croatia in Euro 2004 – and he struggles to find an explanation as to why he has failed to find the net since then. "I can't really answer that, to be honest," Rooney says although he also protests that the chances have also not been created for him to score. "It's frustrating that before every get-together you read about it and hear it on the TV and hopefully I can get a couple of goals in the next couple of games."
Rooney, 22 later this month having made his England debut aged 17 years and 111 days in February 2003, is clearly anxious. "Having been out of the team for so long coming here this week it's felt like I'm in my first squad again," he says. "So I know I've got to try and play well to keep my place." Such humility may not be a bad thing. In Rooney's absence Emile Heskey – a true "big man" in the sense of a target striker – has grabbed his opportunity, recreating his partnership with Michael Owen to wonderful effect in the convincing victories over Israel and Russia which have rejuvenated this campaign.
Now Heskey is injured. "I thought he was brilliant," Rooney says of the Wigan Athletic striker's contributions. "If Emile was fit, the manager would have had a difficult choice to make, I'm sure of that." The fracture to Heskey's metatarsal – another one – saved Steve McClaren that decision. Indeed, there was talk of shoehorning Rooney in at the left of midfield. "I'd rather be on the wing than sitting on the bench," he says. "I'll play anywhere."
But can Rooney play with anyone? He is likely to be selected alongside Owen. It's a partnership of England's two most celebrated, and apparently talented, forwards. But it's also one that has rarely appeared to gel. Last summer's World Cup was marred by injury and a pathetically few minutes against Sweden together but the truth is that the pair have rarely clicked. Even the 3-2 win over Argentina in November 2005, the most recent time they properly played together, was inconclusive. Both scored but it was, in truth, the introduction of Peter Crouch that transformed defeat into victory.
"I don't know whether Michael prefers playing with 'a big man', but he's a great player and he scores goals for his club and country," Rooney says. "I am sure that if we play up front together, we will do the job that we need to do. It's difficult because we haven't played much together for a while but we're good enough to work it out and the chemistry should follow. He's a great player and he's fairly easy to play with."
England need more evidence to back up that claim, starting with tomorrow and, crucially, Wednesday's qualification match away to Russia for which Rooney brushes asides concerns over the artificial surface in Moscow. "I don't think that will be an excuse," he says.
Rooney also detects a different mood within the squad ahead of his 39th cap. "We drew and lost against Macedonia and Croatia [last October] and after those games it was a bit tense," he says. "There was a lot of pressure on the team to do well. The manager was under a lot of pressure as well and has shown what a good coach he is. He's come through it up to now and hopefully we can get the two wins." If England fail to do so, then they may not make next summer's tournament. Failure to qualify, Rooney says, would be a "nightmare".
He may be frustrated but Rooney, fresh from two goals for United, claims, although it may not be a claim that stands up to scrutiny, that he had matured and calmed his own temper. "I've had that question over the last three or four years," he says. "And I don't think there's a problem with that. I'm getting older and I feel like I'm maturing a lot. I think if you watch the games I play, if we're not winning, I'm not smiling. If we're winning, I'm smiling. I think that just tells you how much I want to win.Reuse content