Football loves what-ifs and here is one of the most intriguing when it comes to why England never win World Cups. In November 2005, in one of the few friendlies Sven-Goran Eriksson ever took seriously, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney snatched a 3-2 victory from Argentina in the unlikely surroundings of Geneva.
The World Cup was months away and Rooney and Owen were a natural strike force – England had won 14 of the 17 competitive internationals the two had started. A month later, Owen broke his foot and in April so did Rooney. Neither should have gone to Germany, where they managed four minutes together before, in Cologne, Owen broke down again. They were to play together only three more times, and two of those three were lost – the European Championship qualifier in Moscow disastrously so.
They did not actually share the same pitch in Manchester United's 3-2 victory over Malaysia in the draining, aching humidity of Kuala Lumpur – Owen came on to replace his fellow boyhood Everton fan. But both of them scored and this season they might present a glimpse of what was lost to England.
"I didn't have any idea he was going to sign but we are delighted as a team to get him," said Rooney. "He is a great goalscorer and a good finisher and I think the move will give him a new lease of life. Over the last couple of years he has had some criticism but, to be honest, it would have been difficult for any player to score in that Newcastle team.
"I have played with Michael that many times for England, so I know him well. He has looked really sharp in training and is working very hard. You could see by the way all the lads celebrated how pleased they were for him when he scored."
It may have been a friendly, it may have been against a side ranked 157th in the world – one place below the Maldives. But it was Owen's first since scoring in the rather chillier surroundings, in terms of audience and temperature, of St James' Park in January.
Rooney tore into the game as if oblivious to the heat; he knows no other way to perform. And afterwards, he recognised that with the departure from Old Trafford of £100m worth of footballers, in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, these are standards he will have to demand of himself for the next 11 months.
Rooney liked both men. He would juggle balls with Ronaldo in the Old Trafford dressing rooms before kick-off and with Tevez would swap English swearwords for Spanish ones. But he recognises that Manchester United will miss the 41 goals they scored last season more than he will miss their company.
"Cristiano leaving has left a huge hole when it comes to goals and that is why it is important that me and Dimitar Berbatov especially score more goals than we did last year. But they will be missed. I have spoken to Cristiano since he left. He was a great player for Manchester United but it was his wish to go and I think the club have respected that.
"We don't feel let down by him. We always knew he was going to go sometime and for the club and for himself it was a good deal. The six years we got out of him were brilliant."
However, Tevez's refusal to sign a new contract or Manchester United's reluctance to offer him one – depending if you believe the Argentine – is a subject Rooney was less willing to discuss. "He was a great lad and it was a shame it never got sorted out," he said. "I am sure a lot of people will have a lot to say about him joining Manchester City but I don't want to say too much about it."
One subject Rooney was keen to elaborate on is where he plays. Sir Alex Ferguson began last season by confessing that Rooney had not been handled well tactically. Too often, because of his enthusiasm for the ball or because he was asked to plug a gap, Rooney found himself on the flanks, which is where he spent most of a European Cup final that appeared to pass him by as much as it did most other United players.
"We haven't spoken about it but I am sure I will play through the middle this time," Rooney said. "Everyone knows it is my best position and I enjoy it far more than being out on the flanks. It is less work and you get more chances to score. As a forward, that's what you want."Reuse content