LONDON – On Saturday, Wayne Rooney could become England’s all-time leading goalscorer. He needs two goals against San Marino to overtake Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49. By the end of the season he may well have surpassed Charlton’s Manchester United record of 249 goals — Rooney is 16 behind the total.
He has helped United win the Champions League, five Premier League titles and two League Cups. To be within touching distance of two such prestigious landmarks — your country’s top scorer and leading marksman with the country’s biggest club — should make you an icon, a player looked up to and respected by all.
So why isn’t Rooney thought of in the same way as other England and United legends?
Charlton and Gary Lineker, who scored 48 England goals, had squeaky clean images on and off the field. Lineker was never cautioned or sent off while in 758 games for United. Charlton was booked just once, though the referee never reported it. In 106 internationals Charlton was cautioned once, against Argentina in the 1966 World Cup finals for dissent.
While football has moved on from those days, since his debut for Everton 13 years ago, Rooney has been cautioned 115 times and sent off on six occasions for clubs and country. His early days were also dogged by an association with a lady of the night though, being a husband and father —plus pushing 30 — has seen a more settled, mature Rooney.
For their part, United fans have not forgotten the two occasions he wanted to leave the club and was rewarded for this by even more lucrative contracts. They appreciate his work-rate and his goals, but he trails Charlton, George Best, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and others in the popularity stakes.
As much as anything, Rooney has been a victim of being part of an underachieving England side that has never progressed beyond the quarterfinals of a major tournament in five attempts. He has scored just one goal in three World Cups while Charlton helped England become world champions in 1966.
Roy Hodgson said: “To do it (be recognized as a true all-time great), a player would have to be very successful at a European Championship or World Cup as Bobby Charlton was.
“People would argue Bobby was England’s best ever player — there wouldn’t be many of my age who would have him outside the top three. If Wayne can break into that in the future when he stops playing, then that is fantastic for him.
“Bobby Charlton, for me, is up there on a pedestal and it will take time for any of the modern-day players to get up to that level.”
We have almost certainly seen the best of Rooney. The burst of pace that took him past opponents is rare now, yet Rooney remains the most reliable and constant goal-threat for United and England, despite a poor start to the Premier League season.
Always an easy target, Rooney has been criticized for his indifferent form so far, but he is not helped by playing as a lone striker with no real support. United’s slow build-ups, sideways passing, a lack of pace in midfield and too much use of the long ball have also contributed to the captain’s frustrations. United has seven points from four games, scoring three goals, one an own-goal.
The United players and fans have yet to buy into Louis van Gaal’s philosophy — David Moyes and van Gaal both won 27 of their first 50 games at United, yet the vilified Scot spent a fraction of the Dutchman’s outlay of close to £300 million in the transfer market.
Despite this, van Gaal still needs a central defender to play alongside Chris Smalling, a midfielder with genuine speed and someone to ease the workload on Rooney up front. The £36 million spent on Monaco forward Anthony Martial, 19, is a massive gamble with so much expected quickly from someone so young and inexperienced.
Whatever his club problems, Rooney remains upbeat as England prepares for its inevitable victory over the truly awful San Marino in Serraville with Charlton’s records in his sights.
He said: “Both have stood for a long time, and a lot of players have attempted to break them. Now they’re in touching distance, the two of them. It’s something I’d love to do. I feel I’m capable of doing it. Hopefully one day I’ll hold the two records. I’m confident that I can.”
Mismatch: To use the formal name, The Most Serene Republic Of San Marino is rated 193rd out of 208 national associations in the FIFA rankings. The oldest sovereign state in the world (population 32,500), San Marino belongs to the United Nations though not the European Union. The nation is entitled to have a national team, though whether it should be the punch bag for the rest of Europe is another matter.
Three points are guaranteed — with one exception — but playing such a poor team is a pointless exercise for England and the rest. San Marino played its first official game in 1990 and has never won a competitive fixture, a 0-0 European Championship draw against Estonia last November ended a 61-match losing streak.
Despite knowing his most likely injury is backache from picking the ball out of the net, Aldo Simoncini, the overworked San Marino goalkeeper, regards it as an honor to play against and be beaten by everyone bar Estonia. He said: “I live it all like it’s a dream and I put all my effort into it. For me it’s a privilege and all the matches I’ve played have been a great life experience for me.
“Let’s be honest here, losing by six, seven or eight goals isn’t pleasing for anyone. Not even for me. When I notice that the others go four times faster than us, it really annoys me.
“We are aware of the difference between our team and our opponents, but we never take the field to lose. What is crucial is not to let yourself down when you concede the first goal. You have to maintain the nil-nil as long as you can. A beautiful save can cheer you up.”
England has never scored in the first 10 minutes against San Marino so let’s hope for his sake Simoncini can make a beautiful save or two in the remaining 80 minutes.
Injury woes: What is it with Arsenal and injuries? Danny Welbeck, who has not played since April, has undergone knee surgery that will sideline the striker “for months” according to the club.
A recent study showed Arsenal picked up nearly 100 more injuries than its nearest Premier League rival in a 12-year period.
The long-term injury to Welbeck, who is unlikely to play again until next year, means Arsenal has no recognized striker other than Olivier Giroud.
The Gunners were the only team in the major European leagues not to buy an outfield player during the transfer window.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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