England players often lead a joyless existence while on international duty. What was once a privilege and an honour to represent your country is increasingly an unwanted pressure which runs disproportionate to the national team’s standing in the game.
England are, and have been for many years now, a deeply average side yet premium levels of performance are anticipated. Much of that is to do with the illusionary factor of the Premier League which somehow hoodwinks fans into thinking the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and David Silva will translate to the England team.
Instead, it sets an unobtainable bar for a group of players still struggling to come to terms with moving on from the embarrassment of Euro 2016. None more so than Wayne Rooney whose misery in the white shirt is beginning to resemble some kind of purgatory.
Self-inflicted, admittedly, but such is the torment he’s experiencing, it’s admirable he keeps turning out for the Three Lions. But turn out is all he seems to do. As another vapid display on his 117th appearance for his country saw him booed by sections of the Wembley crowd in 90-minute display as captain where he was also subjected to a year-defining nutmeg.
Rooney debate is simple. Is he one of our best defensive midfielders? No. Is he best attacking mf? No. Is he best striker? No #eng— Alex Crook (@alex_crook) October 8, 2016
As the ball broke loose in the middle of the park, Rooney attempted to close down Malta’s Gareth Sciberras but was beaten to the punch by a player three years his senior who flicked it through his legs and continued forward. Against a side ranked No. 176, he looked passive throughout; his passing tentative with an apparent unwillingness to receive the ball when denied obvious space, made worse by midfield colleague Jordan Henderson’s all-action display as he played with the sort of fire and craft once emblematic of Rooney.
Make no mistake, England are carrying Rooney, but as his game visibly deteriorates, people continue to make excuses for him. Former team-mates and ex-pros have realigned their views gradually over the last 2-3 years, with Rooney’s misgivings as a No. 9 first blamed on a lack of service then a realisation the decline of his pace means is more suited to operating as a creative No. 10.
But his inability to affect matches in the position then saw the school of thought morph into the concept of a deeper role where his “football brain” can work more freely.
After a reasonable first-half against a hugely-depleted Russian midfield at Euro 2016 helped support this theory, he was soon shown up by Iceland in a truly horrible display of inactivity and apathy. Yet Jose Mourinho, despite insisting he wouldn’t, persevered with him as a No. 8 and now Gareth Southgate following in the wake of Sam Allardyce.
But despite so many substandard performances, we’re still told he “still has something to offer”. What that is, remains unclear to anyone watching.
Rooney as a midfielder is akin to if Metallica reinvented themselves as a synth-pop band or if Michael Bay decided his true calling in cinema was romantic comedies. His game was blood and thunder, reactionary football and about momentum, charging forward and playing off the cuff. A “street footballer” as his apologists like to remind us. But that Rooney appears to be a slice of nostalgia.
And that in itself makes for a truly sad situation, as a player so personified by a primal rage every time he stepped onto the field is showing little of the sort against the dying of the light.