Is Wayne Rooney really an England great?

Tonight against Scotland, Wayne Rooney will pick up his 101st cap for England, having reached his centenary milestone last weekend in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia. Yet, despite that historic achievement, whether the 29 year-old constitutes anything more than an above-average Three Lions player remains surprisingly open to interpretation. So, does Rooney count as an England great? Or is he simply just the best of the rest?

The fact Rooney’s legacy is even being debated tells its own story of how diverse opinions are on the Manchester United star, considering he’s just one of nine players to ever reach 100 caps for England and has captained the side since September.

The epicentre of the argument largely surrounds Rooney’s international goals. On the surface, 44 in 100 is a fantastic return at world football level; it’s only four shy of Gary Lineker’s and five of England’s all-time top scorer Bobby Charlton – two undisputed Three Lions legends.

When broken down however, it’s easy to see where criticism of the 29 year-old’s tally seeps in. Rooney’s goals-per-game ratio is at 0.44, only a slight improvement on David Platt’s, whilst Michael Owen, Bobby Charlton, Alan Shearer, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and even Peter Crouch are some way ahead of him. The Match of the Day host for example, netted 0.6 times per England cap.

Perhaps most tellingly, only five of Rooney’s 44 goals have been clear-cut winners and only four have secured draws. He’s seen as many red cards at World Cups as he has goals, one apiece, and just six strikes have come at major tournaments, four of which were at Euro 2004 – the only tournament in which Rooney has truly performed to expectations. Lineker, on the other hand, won the 1986 World Cup’s golden boot.

Of course, Rooney’s never been the most conventional of forwards; lacking the composure and clinical streak of an out-and-out poacher or the consistency on the ball to be considered a classic No.10. He’s somewhere in between and Sir Alex Ferguson even thought the United captain’s ultimate position could be in central midfield.

Resultantly, it’s often Rooney’s other traits that draw the plaudits; commitment, enthusiasm and passion – commendable enough in a period where England haven’t produced much to be wholehearted about. The problem, however, is that you could say the same about James Milner, Joleon Lescott or even David Nugent. England players, by design, tend to share these characteristics.

It creates another dilemma too – if one were to assemble England’s all-time greatest eleven, where would Rooney fit? Up front, ahead of Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer or Michael Owen? Just behind the striker, over Paul Gascoigne or Bobby Charlton? One can only speculate what public opinion would be, but there’s certainly no unanimous verdict and not in a ‘what a wonderful problem to have’ kind of way.

Perhaps the question should be what does it actually take to become an international great? A centenary of caps alone is not enough; Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker have breached that milestone and then some for Germany, but neither will be remembered in the same manner as Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer or Miroslav Klose. One could point to silverware too, but holding England’s inability to win a major tournament for over half a century against Rooney seems cruel and equally inaccurate.

Could it be records? Barring horrendous, unforeseen, disastrous injury, the United forward will become England’s top scorer and all-time appearance maker before his international career comes to a close. He’ll likely break some Premier League records too. Even then however, scrutiny of his quality – whether he’s ever been amongst the world’s greatest, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Frank Ribery – and servitude for the Three Lions, when compared to the clan of 1966, will continue to persist.

Maybe it’s moments that affirm greatness, well commonly consented greatness – split seconds can define international careers and create a bond with the fan base forever. Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore had theirs when they lifted the 1966 World Cup; Lineker had his when he won the golden boot; Paul Gasgoigne had his when he cried at Italia 1990 after a yellow card affirmed his suspension for the final; David Beckham had his when a last minute free kick against Greece secured England’s place at the 2002 World Cup. Rooney however, at 29 and after 100 appearances for England, is still waiting.

That being said, Rooney’s been a part of a Three Lions era that, in terms of results and success, is about as dark and disappointing as it gets. His performances have often blurred the line between defying and defining it, but it remains undisputed that over the last eleven years, England would’ve been a lot worse off without him. Despite this, Rooney’s often formed the poster-boy of the supporters’ generation-spanning frustrations.

So is Wayne Rooney an England great? Perhaps not in the present day – at least, not to everybody. But certain to smash all England records and captain the side for at least one major tournament, something tells me the forgiving, retrospective eye of history, away from the partisan opinions of today, will look upon his international career far more fondly.

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Top 10 all-time appearances for Man United (all competitions)

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