LONDON, May 10 – Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney is facing the biggest fight of his 13 year international career to hold onto his England place going into the European Championships.
England’s talisman ever since he burst onto the scene as a preternaturally gifted 18-year-old at Euro 2004, Rooney has gone to five major tournaments as one of the first names on the team-sheet.
But competition from emerging stars such as Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, coupled with doubts about his own form and fitness, mean that England’s all-time record goal-scorer is no longer an automatic pick.
“As I’ve said throughout my career with Manchester United and England, I never take my place for granted,” Rooney, 30, conceded recently.
“First of all I want England to be successful and win trophies, and obviously it is great if I can be a part of that.”
The current campaign has already been a historic one for Rooney, who broke Bobby Charlton’s 35-year-old England scoring record in October and now has 51 international goals to his name.
He has also moved onto 109 caps, behind only Peter Shilton (125), David Beckham (115) and Steven Gerrard (114) in England’s all-time ranking.
But he has performed fitfully for United and saw a brief return to form abruptly curtailed in February when he was sidelined by a knee injury.
In hi absence, England recorded a rousing 3-2 win over world champions Germany in Berlin.
Dele Alli and Ross Barkley have encroached onto Rooney’s territory as chief creator and there are also doubts about his ability to press with the same intensity as his younger rivals.
England manager Roy Hodgson has toed a diplomatic line with regard to his captain’s status, defending Rooney’s right to a place in the squad but stating that he cannot consider himself a guaranteed starter.
– ‘White Pele’ –
While Rooney remains one of the world’s most famous players, he is no longer the game-changing force of nature who burst onto the scene with Everton at the age of 16, earning himself the nickname ‘The White Pele’.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described him as “the biggest English 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.
He is also the club’s second-highest goal scorer and has Charlton’s United record of 249 goals in his sights.
His goals include some unforgettable strikes, including a stunning overhead bicycle kick against Manchester City in 2011, and he has amassed countless individual awards.
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 into consideration.
It is now 12 years since he exploded onto the global football consciousness with four goals at Euro 2004 in Portugal and the years since have brought nothing but false dawns and disappointments.
Rooney admitted as much after England’s meek group-stage exit at the 2014 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, Rooney’s international record stands up against anyone’s and former England striker Gary Lineker believes that he is “right up there in the pantheon of English football’s finest”.
But with Kane and Vardy the new darlings of the English game and time catching up on him, the former Boy Wonder must prove in France that his best days in an England shirt are not behind him.