SO GARETH SOUTHGATE is the man given the task of moving aside Wayne Rooney, England’s talismanic and unfulfilled Premier-era “star”. No doubt this will be an unpopular decision in some quarters, but if Southgate is to initiate the “new broom sweeping clean”, then the gentle removal of Rooney, arguably the last link with the ill-fated and self-appointed golden generation, has to be the first to go.
Southgate has to do something dramatic with the very scant resources he has at his disposal, possibly the weakest batch of Englishmen a new manager has had to deal with. Dramatic because there will be many people in the labyrinth of power that see the former Palace and Villa defender as a stop-gap and no more. But if there are so few English contenders, then Southgate will do no worse than Allardyce would have done or pretenders like Steve Bruce and Alan Pardew might yet do.
Southgate has made his impact and marked himself as a person unafraid of making difficult decisions. Telling the only England player to even get a sniff of being mentioned in the same conversation as Messi and Ronaldo – comparisons that have always seemed fanciful – that it might be time to go takes cojones, but it will also be the decision by which Southgate will rise or fall.
If England continue to falter, with Rooney on the sidelines or in the stand, then the fans and the media will quickly point to Southgate. If all goes well, then he will be applauded for ensuring England can move on.
As for Rooney, his response has been professional and, apparently, impressive. A lot of footballers do not know when to call it a day, unable to get the scent of the dressing room out of their nostrils. This can have a damaging effect, diluting the reputation of a player that may have given outstanding service. Chelsea may have the same issue with John Terry, although the former England skipper is still a credible defender. But so many players have refused to accept that their time is up and it often damages the relationship between club’s fans and the player himself.
Sometimes, managers try and hang on to their trusted aides for too long. Sir Alf Ramsey was fiercely loyal to the men who won the World Cup in 1966, and some might argue with justification that if any band of brothers deserved loyalty it was this group. Once the World Cup was lost, Bobby Charlton was discarded after a century-plus of caps, and in 1973, with England ousted by the Poles, Bobby Moore was also axed. Actually, it was the manager’s choice, rather than a grand press conference announcing a player’s international retirement – the trend that started with the likes of David Beckham and his contemporaries. It should not be in the player’s gift to announce his international retirement, that should be apparent by the decision of the manager in omitting him from the squad. There has been a certain amount of presumption on the part of England players that their place is secure until they announce they are no longer extending their international career.
Rooney’s international stint is almost certainly coming to a close, although he has declared “I’ll be back” and that, “this is no embarrassment”. He may limp on to get enough caps to pass Peter Shilton’s 125 in much the same way Beckham was rolled-out to bolster his haul of caps, but once a key player becomes a squad member, there’s rarely a way back.
It has been a disappointing period for England and Rooney has never done enough in an England shirt to warrant inclusion in world football’s all-time greats. His long tenure in the team has been largely attributable to the lack of alternatives and the erosion of England as a power of any sort. Too much hope has been placed upon him for too long because there simply hasn’t been anyone else to shoulder the expectation of the nation.
And his place at Manchester United is no longer guaranteed. Jose Mourinho is the last manager to be sentimental and although he has coveted Rooney in the past, time stands still for no footballer. Mourinho will not include Rooney for “old times sake”, so if the “special one” survives his slightly uncomfortable first season, he could well be plying his trade somewhere other than Old Trafford before too long. But if Mourinho goes, and Ryan Giggs gets the job he has been craving, it could signal a change of circumstances.
Meanwhile, nobody should be too surprised by what’s happening. A new manager means a new approach and when it comes to England, turning over the squad should happen after yet another poor showing in a major competition. Rooney has often been referred to as a “legend” – a tag that’s applied all too easily and all too frequently. Pretty soon, Wayne Rooney will earn that tag as the curtain comes down on an England career that started so well and promised so much.