Amid the hysteria surrounding his deadline day transfer to Manchester United in 2004, an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney departed Everton’s training ground in the boot of Alan Stubbs’ car so as to avoid the ire of disgruntled fans and a peckish posse of assembled press.
It was probably the last time he has successfully managed to evade either.
Rooney remains an English obsession and tonight he’ll win his 100th cap for the national team with debate still raging over everything from his attitude, fitness, best position and now, whether he belongs in the pantheon of Three Lions’ greats.
His 99 caps, 58 wins, 43 goals and 20 assists would suggest it is not even a discussion.
It’s also worth pointing out that at 29, Rooney, barring major injury, will trump both Peter Shilton’s appearance record (126) and Sir Bobby Charlton’s goals benchmark (49). Yet despite an array of impressive statistics, it is an international career that feels somewhat hollow.
Just months before Rooney squeezed in among his friend’s dirty kit for an unceremonious lift home, he had produced a performance at Euro 2004 which ranks behind only Paul Gascoigne at the 1990 World Cup and Charlton in 1966 when considering the attacking impact of Englishmen at major tournaments.
Free-spirited, raw and explosive, Rooney’s frightening potential was crystallised on the football pitches of Portugal. It was reflected in the looks of puzzlement worn by French defenders, the Swiss who he single-handedly destroyed and a talented Croatian team demolished in Lisbon by Rooney and strike partner Michael Owen.
Of course his exit, with a broken foot, midway through the first half of a quarter-final defeat to the hosts, brought a premature end to the story, but there was no doubting who the star of the show had been.
To suggest then he had already peaked in tournament football would have been hard to fathom, yet that is exactly what has transpired.
His subsequent performances in qualifying may have been exemplary – only 12 of his 43 goals have come in friendlies – but he has never again been able to produce when his country needed him at the main event.
Rooney has, at times, been brilliant, inspirational and dependable in an England shirt. He has also been the antithesis of those traits.
The narrative which football insatiably spawns seems to demand he be canonised or castigated, enshrined a great or deemed a failure.
Tonight he’ll have 100 others that sit perfectly, but he wears neither of those two caps particularly well.
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