Monday 19 March 2018

Gareth Southgate challenges England players to step out of Wayne Rooney's shadow

England manager Gareth Southgate has challenged his players to step out of Wayne Rooney's shadow
England manager Gareth Southgate has challenged his players to step out of Wayne Rooney's shadow

Gareth Southgate has challenged his England side to step out of Wayne Rooney's shadow, but is also happy to grant the country's record goalscorer a Wembley farewell.

The England manager had planned on recalling the former skipper for forthcoming games against Malta and Slovakia, though it seems he was more likely to be a mentor than a member of the starting XI, but was instead informed of his immediate retirement.

While the 31-year-old's early form since returning to Everton had suggested he was capable of adding to an international CV boasting 119 caps and 53 goals, his decision was the final act in a decommissioning process delicately overseen by Southgate, starting with his removal from the captaincy, the first team and ultimately the squad.

There has been mutual respect between player and coach throughout what could have been a tricky process, and Southgate revealed the pair talked for over 30 minutes after Rooney declared his intention. In keeping with that he advocates a public show of gratitude.

That could come in November, when the Football Association hopes to host glamour friendlies against Germany and Brazil provided qualification is already in the bag. Germany handed Lukas Podolski a swansong appearance against England in March, several months after his retirement, and saw him score an emotional winner.

Southgate stopped short of suggesting Rooney should don the shirt one last time but said: "It's never been done before and we have obviously had World Cup winners but absolutely we should be recognising his career with England and showing appreciation.

"I know already there is discussion around that and discussion about how we may keep him involved with England. I think there should definitely be some kind of recognition and whatever that looks like should be for the FA to decide."

And while it seems fanciful to suggest Rooney might pull a U-turn in order to fulfil his dream of appearing in next summer's World Cup, Southgate was careful to stress that he was not ruling anything out on the player's behalf.

"I suppose that we have to see where he was at, where the squad was at, where everything else was at. It would be foolish to say 'no' because anything is possible," he offered.

"Have I seen players change their minds? Well yes, I think we all have."

In the longer term Southgate left no doubt about his desire to see new leaders emerge, suggesting that Rooney - following in the footsteps of other major figures such as David Beckham, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard - had sometimes shouldered too much of the pressure. The added implication was that his team-mates had allowed that to perpetuate.

"Wayne's been somebody it may have been easy to hide behind for people," he said.

"He's the one who has carried that burden. I think that's been unfair on him. Now everybody has the chance to take the mantle. It's not so much (that they are) quiet but I guess they have not had to carry the responsibility that Wayne has carried, certainly since Steven retired.

"He's probably had to carry that on his own. Prior to that I still think he was carrying a lot of responsibility. Now others have to grasp that initiative and responsibility and it is opportunity for people. If we are going to be an outstanding team moving forward then you need players who are going to step up in the big moments, step up in games, every time they play for England they have the chance to be involved in an iconic moment in a historic performance that they have that choice, every time they go on the field now."

Southgate conceded a "tinge of sadness" that he had been the one to oversee the end of Rooney's England days, having once played alongside him, but spoke emphatically about where the younger man stood in England's post-1966 pantheon.

He may have too often under-performed when major tournaments came around but Southgate pointed to a notable contemporary who could say the same in response to that argument.

"I guess people have that debate about Lionel Messi, because he has not won a World Cup. We are talking about that level of player. We are talking about greats within their own country," he said.

"We cannot compare ourselves to Brazilians or Germans (as trophy winners), but Wayne has done pretty much everything else.

"If that hasn't been the case with England, I think that's been more a failing of the team than him as an individual. Because he's consistently scored, consistently carried the fight, consistently put himself there, even under the most intense scrutiny and criticism.

"This is all pub conversation really, how do we assess different generations of player? There's always a debate: would Mohammed Ali be the world champion in the modern world? I think greats across any era would have been greats.

"Would Wayne have got in the World Cup team in 1966? I don't know, I didn't see enough of the team and it's impossible to compare. I think we have to look at: what are the facts? The fact is he is our record goalscorer, more than Bobby Charlton, more than Gary Lineker. How is Gary viewed? How is John Barnes viewed? In my eyes they are legends of the English game, for many different reasons. And I think Wayne is in that category."

Press Association

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