Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ignore the Naysayers: Wayne Rooney is one of the Greats

Wayne Rooney won his 100th cap for England last week, in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia. I didn't see the match, but by all accounts it was a pretty dire display by England, starting with an own-goal from Jordan Henderson and only being salvaged by England waking up in the second half and finally playing like they were expected to. Rooney helped in this turnaround, by winning a penalty, which he then converted - this led to a fightback and England won 3-1.

What's interesting is that on the eve of the game, the BBC posted an analysis piece asking whether Rooney could be considered a "great", as he was also steadily climbing up the list of England's top scorers ever. He went into the Slovenia game with 43 goals, putting him fourth on the list. By the end of the friendly against Scotland at Celtic Park a few days later, Rooney had moved up to third, with 46 goals, putting him two goals behind Gary Lineker and three behind all-time leader Bobby Charlton.

The thrust of Phil McNulty's piece was, in fact, to look at whether or not Rooney had fulfilled his potential from his debut in 2003. There were a number of comments from the likes of Danny Mills, pointing out that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade; and from Alan Shearer, who suggested that Rooney isn't in the same class as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

But if you think about it, what makes those two players great? When people debate whether Rooney's a "great" player or not, the implication is that he hasn't helped England win any trophies. Lineker may have led England to its first semi-finals since 1966, and Jimmy Greaves may have the better goals-per-games ratio (44 in 57 games), but Bobby Charlton remains at the top because he's one of the heroes of 1966.

But, like Rooney, neither Ronaldo nor Messi has won a World Cup. Ronaldo's never led Portugal to victory at the European Championships, and Messi's Argentina has never won a senior tournament (although he was on the winning U20 and Olympic teams).

Admittedly, Rooney isn't quite up there with Ronaldo or Messi in terms of Champions League goals, or European honors. He does also trail both in terms of career goals at club level, and his Wikipedia page lacks a section detailing all the records he's broken, whereas Ronaldo and Messi's pages have long lists of records, many of which they share, such as scoring against all teams in their league or getting to 25 goals.

I'm not denying both are great players, but I'd just like to note that they each play for the only teams in Spain that are credible title contenders each year - it's easy to look world-class when your competition is leagues behind you. English football is slightly more competitive, as the top three or four teams have changed several times in the last decade (anybody else remember when Newcastle was considered a top- four club?).

I guess my point is, it's harsh to say that Rooney's not a "great" player just because he isn't as good as the two guys who win the FIFA Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year awards every year. He's not a prolific goalscorer, but he gets enough to help Manchester United challenge for the title (most seasons - although if United's poor form continues I wouldn't be surprised to see him pitch up at Chelsea or even Manchester City).

And I think Mills is right when he says that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade. Rooney's not even 30 yet, remember, so he has a few years to go before he hits the decline that's currently plaguing his England teammate Steven Gerrard. It's likely, barring injury, that Rooney will also play in the 2018 World Cup, although I think it's fair to say that his last tournament in his prime will be 2016.

Rooney will probably never lift an international trophy (and neither will Ronaldo; Messi could still win a Copa America or something with Argentina). But he will surpass Bobby Charlton as England's top scorer ever, and his record will probably stand for a good long while. That strikes me as enough to seal Wayne Rooney's reputation forever.