Saturday 25 November 2017

Hodgson delays Rooney record for another day

Wayne Rooney celebrates in front of England fans
Wayne Rooney celebrates in front of England fans

Dominic Fifield

This mismatch was approaching its hour mark when the substitutes' board was hoisted to reveal Wayne Rooney's number was up. The England captain, perhaps half-expecting to retreat, flung the armband to Jonjo Shelvey and briefly assured his marker, the over-worked Davide Simoncini, that he would swap shirts post-match before departing with a clap to the arena's two stands. That record, which has been tantalisingly within his grasp for so long, will have to be broken back at Wembley on Tuesday.

The smattering of boos from the English support massed on the opposite side of the ground reflected the fact Roy Hodgson's decision was surprising. San Marino, starved of possession on a horrible playing surface, were always likely to wilt late on and the chance Rooney so craved to register his half-century of international goals felt minutes away.

As it is, this was the evening he drew level with Bobby Charlton at the top of his country's scoring charts, albeit to be swiftly joined by own goals, also on 49 courtesy of Cristian Brolli's inadvertent glance beyond Aldo Simoncini. The Swiss will be more awkward opposition on Tuesday, but the three-way tie at the top should not be maintained for long.

"The substitution was planned with a view to Tuesday night," the England manager said. "It would be nice if Wayne could get the 50th goal against Switzerland on Tuesday night, but one thing is for certain - he'll get it.

"If it's not on Tuesday, it might be October, if it's not October, it might be in November, and if it's not in November, it might be 2016. But he'll get it. It's not as if this was his last and only chance.

"If this was his last game for England and he needed one more goal to break the record, I wouldn't have taken him off."

There was still some satisfaction to be taken from qualification for Euro 2016 and the forward's first-half reward. Even England's players had been perplexed the shrill of Leontios Trattou's whistle had announced the award of a penalty 12 minutes in when the more obvious offence had appeared to be John Stones' handball.

Yet the Cypriot determined that had stemmed from Marco Berardi's push and, while San Marino protested, Rooney's stood, focus fixed, in calm isolation just outside the area. Once the officials had reimposed some order the striker stroked his fifth England penalty into the corner. His markers must have feared what might follow on from such swift plunder, though the pitch and the visitors' rather stodgy play up to the interval denied the occasion an early cricket score.

That was eventually rattled up by Theo Walcott and Harry Kane once Rooney had retired to the dug-out, his thoughts no doubt already turning to Wembley. Maybe it would surely be more appropriate for Rooney to score his 50th and break a record which has stood for 45 years back against opponents in the Swiss who had started the qualification campaign ranked higher than Hodgson's side.

The 29-year-old deserves his moment. For all that the debate is maintained over whether he is one of the greats of the game, this is a player who will finish his career with goalscoring records for his country and, most likely, for Manchester United. His failure to illuminate a major tournament since Euro 2004, when he was a relative unknown and tore so eagerly into Switzerland and Croatia in particular, counts against him.

Sven-Goran Eriksson described his impact that summer as similar to that of Pele at the 1958 World Cup and, where that was supposed to have been the hors d'oeuvre to greater things, it is true that, in major finals since, Rooney has invariably cut a more anguished performer.

Yet, for a nation with precious few successes to celebrate on that stage, it should be acknowledged he is England's third-highest scorer at tournaments. His record of 29 goals in qualifiers is often dismissed as that of a flat-track bully, running riot against teams such as the Sammarinese or across technically cute but defensively crude teams from eastern Europe. Yet no one else has proved as consistent in deflating the challenge mustered by those opponents, and Sir Bobby helped himself to hat-tricks against Luxembourg, Mexico and the United States in 9-0, 8-0 and 8-1 wins from a bygone era.

More revealing is Rooney's international ratio stands up to scrutiny with those of Lionel Messi (48 in 104) and even Cristiano Ronaldo (55 in 120), the players whose staggering club records at Barcelona and Real Madrid eclipse his own at United.

If England claim a major trophy over what remains of Rooney's career, it would constitute quite a surprise. But can Rooney be held solely responsible for the shortcomings of a generation? He is England's youngest international at 17 years and 111 days. The record will be his alone soon enough.


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