Wayne Rooney: Will the player's lengthy England journey take him past Sir Bobby Charlton's goalscoring record

With Rooney on the brink of equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record, it is easy to forget just how many years he has been a fixture in the national side. Sam Wallace looks back at his career and asks just where the team would have been without him

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The Independent Football

Francis Jeffers, who was on the pitch the night that Wayne Rooney made his England debut in February 2003, has a story about those early years that tells you just how far ahead of his contemporaries the 17-year-old was even back then. Bear in mind that while Jeffers and Rooney were paired in the public imagination because of their background – they both went to the same school in Liverpool – there is almost five years’ difference in their age.

In the April after their debuts against Australia, Jeffers and Rooney were called up again by Sven Goran Eriksson for the two Euro 2004 qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Turkey. Having trained with the senior squad, Jeffers was bumped back down to the Under-21s, and then returned home. “Wayne rang me to tell me he was starting against Turkey which I didn’t expect,” Jeffers recalled last year. “I wished him all the best and went home and watched the game. He was brilliant, wasn’t he?”

Jeffers was five years older than Rooney but already had to acknowledge he was behind him. There is no shame in that. There has not been another player born around the same time who can hold a candle to Rooney’s career.

It is the fate of a man who has been so crucial to England for so long that, as he approaches the game in which he may well break Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 international goals, the question asked more often is why Rooney has not achieved more. A more pertinent one, as he leads the team out in San Marino today, is what it would have been like for England had he not been around.

 

He will always suffer in comparison to the greats of English football past, especially as Charlton and Jimmy Greaves approach the twilight of their lives and their achievements seem ever more precious for the era to which they belonged. The Football Association announced that they will make a significant contribution to the £30,000 appeal to pay for Greaves’ care after the stroke he suffered in May.

It barely needs saying that £30,000 is about what the top earners of Rooney’s generation earn in a day – not that it is their fault to  have been born into football’s most lucrative age. Asked at the Serravalle Stadium in sleepy San Marino whether he thinks he gets the respect his achievements deserve, Rooney replied with a shrug of the shoulders and the well-worn response of a man who has grown accustomed to shutting out a lot of outside noise.

“I don’t know, it’s not something I’m too fussed about,” he said. “As long as my managers and my team-mates understand and respect the job I do for them … the day they turn round and say they don’t is the day it’ll bother me. In terms of what other people think it doesn’t really concern me.”

“Up to a couple of years ago, people were saying [Lionel] Messi wasn’t [Diego] Maradona because he hadn’t won the World Cup. In my mind, Messi is a better player than Maradona. But that’s how football is. It’s about trophies you win. As a team, that’s how you’re judged. Sir Bobby did that. Hopefully there’s still time for me to be successful like that.”

It will be 12 years this weekend since Rooney’s first goal for England against Macedonia in Skopje, aged 17. He never played a single England Under-21s game, fast-tracked past the junior age groups to make his debut in 2003 as England’s youngest international of all-time at 17 years and 111 days, leaving his contemporaries, that generation born in the mid-1980s, trailing in his wake. They never caught up.

Rooney has always been compared to players older than himself. The comparison with his own generation is staggering. Go back to the Under-21s team that played Italy in February 2003, and there is no more than one recognised senior international from that side. Some, like Matt Murray have been unlucky with injuries. Jlloyd Samuel is playing in Iran. David Prutton and Kevin Nolan are free agents. Only Michael Carrick is still an England footballer, and in the current squad.

Missing from the team that day, but regular Under-21s in that era, were Gareth Barry, Glen Johnson, Joey Barton, Jermain Defoe, Jermaine Jenas and Shaun Wright-Phillips. All of them went on to have senior England careers of varying note, but Rooney started before all of them – bar Barry and Jenas – and he has outlasted them all too.

As for those around the same age as Rooney, who were playing Under-21s football while he was in the senior team, there are some who showed promise like Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone but were not able to convert that into more than a handful of senior caps. An Under-21 then, Aaron Lennon won the last of his 21 senior caps in February 2013. Only James Milner from that Under-21s generation remains a regular in the seniors.

Milner is Rooney’s equivalent in age and has undoubtedly had a fine career – indeed he was something of a prodigy himself. Yet even Milner, less than three months younger than Rooney, with a record number of Under-21s caps, and having made his professional debut aged just 16, took six and a half years longer than his contemporary to make his England senior debut.

By the time Milner featured in a friendly against the Netherlands in August 2009, Rooney had played 52 times for England and scored 24 goals. Yet, had they attended the same school as children they would have been in the same year group. Ditto, Gary Cahill, born less than two months after Rooney. By the time the Chelsea defender made his debut in 2010, Rooney had already played at three major international tournaments for England.

Asked about those years when he broke through as one of the only young players in the squad, Rooney remembers it as being a natural progression. He says that his confidence carried him through. “I didn’t feel I was carrying the expectations,” he says. “I played with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham – world-class players. I didn’t feel, going into a tournament, I’ve got to win it for England. We had a good team.”

Yet here he is, more than 12 years on, still the most talked-about player in the England team. When once he was by far the youngest, now he is by a distance the most experienced. On the brink of breaking Charlton’s 45-year-old record it should be no surprise that he is not fazed by the prospect. He says the goals have “crept up over the years” and he will get there in the end. In reality it has been a record that we should have seen coming from 12 years out.

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