ALL EYES ON ROONEY ROLE IN SPICY WEMBLEY CLASH
Given Scotland and England’s recent political history it is somewhat fitting that the latest gauge of public opinion on whether Wayne Rooney should remain at the top level or leave the international stage will take place when the two nations meet at Wembley on Friday.
Rooney is England’s all-time record goalscorer and is two strikes off attaining the same lofty status at Manchester United.
These are towering achievements that do not sit easily alongside weekly questions over whether he merits a place with club or country. This debate being rung out now for many months suggests there is uncomfortable weight behind the argument that Rooney is yesterday’s man.
During Euro 2016, then England manager Roy Hodgson bemoaned criticism of his decision to rest Rooney for the 0-0 group-stage draw against Slovakia, pointing out not unreasonably that a fair chunk of his time in the build-up to the tournament was spent defending his persistent selection of the 31-year-old.
Hodgson and, of course, Sam Allardyce are now former England managers, with interim boss Gareth Southgate telling reporters on Thursday that Rooney would return to his starting line-up having missed out for the previous World Cup qualifier in Slovenia.
By this stage, the still-running line of enquiry has a familiar follow-up question, as it did for Louis van Gaal and does for Jose Mourinho at United. Where will Rooney play?
One of the finest forwards of his generation making an on-off transition into a midfielder has been one of the more unseemly aspects of Rooney’s malaise.
Towards the end of last season he said playing in a deeper role was the best way to prolong his time among the elite and, after a man-of-the-match showing in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, Hodgson deployed him in midfield for the first time in England colours against Russia in their Euro 2016 opener.
Rooney’s performances in Marseille and in the subsequent 2-1 win over Wales won praise, but, rested up to face Iceland in the last 16, he turned in a poor and often baffling display after scoring the early penalty in a 2-1 defeat.
“No more,” came Mourinho’s cry. Rooney would never play in midfield for United. That was until he did, terribly in a loss to Watford to rob him of a starting spot in the Premier League for seven weeks.
He returned against Swansea City last weekend, nominally on the left of a front three and followed up a superb long-range strike in the Europa League loss at Fenerbahce with a pair of assists.
Allardyce’s loose lips mean he leaves us with a smaller sample size, but in his one match in charge of England he almost impressively managed to confuse the issue further.
Like Mourinho, Allardyce said Rooney would not play in midfield and promptly picked him there against Slovakia. Although, he then told a post-match news conference he could not stop the skipper playing where he wanted.
On England’s next get together Rooney insisted this was not the case, maintaining he followed team instructions to the letter with barely concealed displeasure.
By this stage, Southgate had a player visibly low on form and confidence and acted accordingly after the man whose leadership qualities he warmly praised drew Wembley boos against minnows Malta.
Now the ex-England defender sees something of the old verve returning.
“He’s in a better place than for the last get-together in terms of sharpness and confidence,” Southgate said.
“He is playing well. He’s a player when in a rhythm of playing, it helps him.”
The all-action, dominant striker of his prime years is a player who must be consigned to memory.
But with Daniel Sturridge enduring a similarly tenuous relationship with the starting XI at Liverpool, Jamie Vardy in a goal drought and Harry Kane just back to fitness, it might be time for Rooney to dust off the old penalty box instincts and prove he and England are still better together.
It was an honour to pay our respects to our heroes today. We will remember them! pic.twitter.com/vDT2LKt4WD
— Wayne Rooney (@WayneRooney) November 8, 2016
THE NUMBERS GAME
– This will be the third time that these two sides have met in an international match this century, with England winning the previous two; 3-2 in August 2013 and 3-1 in November 2014, with Wayne Rooney scoring two goals from three shots in the latter fixture.
– The last time that England and Scotland met in a competitive fixture was back in November 1999 at Wembley Stadium. Scotland prevailed 1-0 thanks to a goal from Don Hutchison, but lost the Euro 2000 play-off tie 1-2 on aggregate.
– This victory was Scotland’s only win in their last nine international matches against England (W1 D1 L7).
– This will be the third time that these two sides have met in a World Cup qualifier – the previous two were both won by England (1950 and 1954).
– Five of England’s last seven international wins have come from a goal scored in the 83rd minute or later.
– England are currently unbeaten in 32 international qualifiers (World Cup and Euros combined); winning 24 and drawing eight.
– The last 10 goals scored by England in qualification matches have all come from different players.
– Scotland have won just two of their last eight qualification games and these two wins have come against Gibraltar and Malta (D3 L3).
“I’m really enjoying being in the role. What happens to me is not important – we want to win this game for the country and to be top of the group.
“What happens to me is important to my family but, other than that, it’s not the purpose of this game. I want the players to go out and enjoy their football, play well. I’m sure they will.
“My focus is 100 per cent on the match and it would be irresponsible and unprofessional to be any other way. I’m enjoying working with the group of players and my focus is on winning the game. It’s as simple as that.
“I think it’s important that the team has an identity. Everybody has a slightly different way of playing, and the more we have an England way of playing, the easier that will be to adapt to.
“We had a conversation about the difference between confidence and arrogance. That’s not where we want to be, but we need to play with confidence. We need to believe in the players we’ve got and adapt to the situation.”
“We’ve not been too pleased with the last two performances. Any game we’ve played after the last two, we are desperate to catch up and make up ground. This game is a chance to catch up. It’s a chance to feel better about myself. Over the past few years I haven’t felt decent about myself. It’s getting back to that level of feeling good about yourself.
“I have got a lot of good characters about the place – don’t worry about that. As a manager you often think, who is going to let me down but not with this team. This is a great group of lads to work with. I never go to bed thinking someone is going to let me down and someone isn’t going to give me 100 per cent. My players are intelligent enough to understand the fixture. The importance of the game is understood.
“We are the lucky people, especially the ones who are playing. Supporters can throw themselves headlong into it too, but the coaches have got to step back. I’ve been here many times as a supporter, also as a player. I really enjoyed it as a player and as a supporter – maybe too much! In management, the joy comes from the glow of satisfaction if your team has performed well.
“The atmosphere could focus us, it might spook a few people too. Our focus has been tremendous and we’re oblivious to anything else but this game of football. They’re pleased they’re the group to take on England.”
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