LONDON — Wayne Rooney‘s incredible, if not fairytale, England career had a fitting farewell.
It was, in many ways, as wonderfully subdued as the general demeanor of the all-time leading goalscorer for England and Manchester United. It oozed class in front of nearly 70,000 fans at the home of soccer.
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Winning his 120th and final cap in a one-off comeback 3-0 win against the U.S. men’s national team on Thursday, England’s fans screamed “shoooooot!” every time Rooney touched the ball after coming on in the 58th minute. Instead he tried to set up others whenever he could, but he did come close as he beat two defenders but his low shot was saved by Brad Guzan, then moments before the final whistle he threw himself at a cross he couldn’t quite get on the end of.
That would have been too perfect of a finale for a laidback lad from Liverpool.
As he disappeared down the Wembley tunnel one last time as a player, most of the fans had already gone. But Rooney applauded those that stayed and then looked on wistfully around the Wembley pitch one last time before he spoke about his farewell.
“It’s my opinion that England are in very safe hands from what I’ve seen this week,” Rooney said. “The way they are being coached is brilliant, it’s a great group of young players who have a bright future. They will go close to being the next team to bring a trophy back for England… I’ve had my time, I can sit back and watch them now.”
Again, classy. Just like the entire night was as he was welcomed onto the pitch with a guard of honor and had his kids alongside him as chants of “Rooney, Rooney” cascaded down from the stands.
To put the magnitude of his glittering career into context, Rooney’s 120 caps were more than England’s entire starting lineup combined.
Rooney, 33, made his England debut when he was 17 and up until last year he carried the hopes of soccer’s home nation on his shoulders year after year. In truth, he made every English youngster dream that they could follow in his footsteps as a homegrown Premier League star and an England hero.
When Rooney stepped out onto the pitch in his famous number 10 jersey as a second half sub, he was handed the armband and it seemed all so familiar to see him strolling around Wembley as if he was playing in his local park.
It is clear he was more than just a player to his teammates and opponents. For an entire generation around the world, he was an example of what could be achieved when pure hard work meets incredible skill.
His goals, his guile, his drive, Rooney had everything in his early years to suggest he was the man who could end the heartbreak of 1966. England’s wait for a trophy goes on.
England’s all-time leading goalscorer will always be criticized for not leading the Three Lions to glory, but the Liverpudlian seemed to be the right man at the wrong time.
It’s intriguing to think about what would be if Rooney was born 15 years later. There’s no doubt that his cerebral brilliance, his sublime weight of pass and clever flicks would still have a place in the game today, but the pace and power of this England attacking line suggest August 2017 was the right time for him to step away from the international game.
Youngsters like Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli are tasked with trying to lead the Three Lions to silverware and as Rooney said, the no. 5 team on the planet look set to do just that.
As a team, England never hit the heights they should have with Rooney as their leader. The numerous penalty kick agonies for Rooney and the “golden generation” were backed up by his untimely injuries before big tournaments, that red card against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup and his meltdown in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
His relationship with England fans, the media and everyone in-between has been tumultuous over the past decade or so but Rooney has always done one thing: turn up and give his all for his country.
Look at the way Harry Kane, Gareth Southgate and the current England squad laud his ability, his quality not only as a player but as a person.
Rooney was thrust into the spotlight as a teenager and was expected to be a leader. A few hiccups off the pitch over the years suggests he just wants to be normal. That he was always a reluctant superstar who wanted to be one of the lads watching England play down the pub.
One moment sticks in my mind when summing up Rooney’s understated demeanor that was showcased fittingly in his England farewell.
Last year I attended a Football Writers’ Association tribute dinner for Rooney at the swanky Savoy hotel in London. As I walked down a corridor, Rooney was walking towards me and with his hands in the pockets of his tux. He looked more uncomfortable than a linebacker performing ballet. I simply said, “congrats on the award, mate!” Rooney replied, “thanks, mate” and smiled as he put his head down, took a deep breath and then walked back into the main ballroom at the Savoy, where 300-plus adoring fans and industry giants were waiting to hear him speak as many stood in a huge line for photos and a chat with him.
What I wanted to say, as an Englishman who remembers watching Rooney in his debut Premier League season when we were both teenagers, was, “no, thank you.” Thanks for for giving us the opportunity to watch your fantastic goals, surging runs and bulldozing of defenders for club and country. Thanks for making every young lad in England dream and somehow believe they could emulate your play in one small way or another.
Even if he wasn’t his scene to attend fancy dinners and sit down for hours talking to the media, Rooney has grown into his ambassadorial role over the years with both England and Man United. So much so that he is now seen as a true role model to younger professionals on how to continue a relentless pursuit of perfection.
He was England’s main hope for his entire career. Now, that time has come and gone. Rooney got the farewell he deserved on Thursday against the U.S. men’s national team and after seeing him suffer and succeed for England, the fans were united in applauding a legend off the pitch one final time.
Rooney’s place in the pantheon of soccer greats is secure and the reception he received at Wembley, the home of soccer, underlined how much he has been admired. It also reflected what he always wanted: to be admired as a player who always did his best for his country.