LONDON, September 4- It is telling that although he stands on the verge of becoming England’s all-time leading goal-scorer, Wayne Rooney’s standing in the game remains a matter of debate.
Ahead of back-to-back Euro 2016 qualifiers away to San Marino, on Saturday, and at home to Switzerland, on Tuesday, Rooney needs two goals to surpass Bobby Charlton’s tally of 49, which has stood for 45 years.
But he goes into the games on the back of a 10-match league scoring drought — the longest of his Manchester United career — and facing questions as to whether he can still cut it as a top-level goal-scorer.
Aside from a well taken hat-trick at Club Brugge in the Champions League play-off round, Rooney has cut a sluggish figure in United’s campaign to date.
Obliged to lead the line alone in manager Louis van Gaal’s single-striker system, he has looked isolated and off the pace, his touch betraying him, his famous explosiveness diminished.
It has brought to mind the words uttered last year by Paul Scholes, Rooney’s former United team-mate, who said that Rooney’s premature emergence as a teenager means he may have reached his peak some years ago.
Rooney himself has dismissed suggestions that he is past his best and has pointed with justification to a historical record that shows his fallow periods are frequently followed by flurries of goals.
And yet there is no escaping the fact that he is no longer the game-changing force of nature, the rampaging bull, that burst onto the scene with Everton at the age of 16, earning him the nickname ‘the White Pele’.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described him as “the biggest England talent since I’ve arrived in England”, but the true weight of his achievements remains hard to measure.
With United, who he joined from Everton in 2004, he has won almost everything, including five Premier League titles, two League Cups and the 2008 Champions League, and is the club’s third-highest scorer with 233 goals.
– False dawns –
He has scored some of the modern era’s great goals, including a stunning overhead bicycle kick against Manchester City in 2011, and was voted England’s Player of the Year in 2010 by both his peers and the country’s journalists.
But for all that, there lingers a sense of potential unfulfilled, and nowhere is that feeling more pronounced than when his achievements with England are brought under consideration.
It is now 11 years since he exploded onto the international football consciousness at Euro 2004 and the time since has brought nothing but false dawns and disappointments.
Rooney admitted as much last year, after England’s meek group-stage exit at the World Cup in Brazil.
“Obviously I’m not going to be as big a legend as Sir Bobby Charlton,” Rooney said. “He’s won the World Cup.”
In purely statistical terms, however, Rooney’s England record stands up against anyone’s.
He is only the ninth player to have represented England 100 times or more and with his 30th birthday still to fall, he is likely to surpass Peter Shilton’s all-time appearance record of 125 and improve Charlton’s goal-scoring mark by a healthy margin.
“He has to rank right up there in the pantheon of English football’s finest,” says Gary Lineker, whose tally of 48 England goals Rooney matched with the winner in a 3-2 victory against Slovenia in June.
Geoff Hurst, who scored the hat-trick against West Germany that gave England the 1966 World Cup, this week described Rooney as a “true great”, although he said Charlton’s role in that success set him apart.
Lineker famously squandered an opportunity to equal Charlton’s record when he botched an attempted ‘Panenka’ penalty in a friendly against Brazil in 1992 on what was to prove one of his last England appearances.
All-time great or not, Rooney is unlikely to finish his international career without adding to his tally.