By Liam Twomey in Rio de Janeiro
After 10 years of wearing an England shirt, Wayne Rooney is well used to being the centre of attention. It is an inevitable burden for the most talented English player of his generation. Every good qualifying performance is greeted as the dawn of something greater, positional shifts interpreted as personal slights and every underwhelming tournament display as legacy defining.
But even by such inflated standards, this week has tried the patience more than most.
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“Unfortunately we do have a fixation with one player during every World Cup I’ve been involved in,” he told reporters when the subject of Rooney was broached. “It’s a bit frustrating when you’re in a team group and that happens because we’re trying to play together trying to get results.
“The fixation with one player can become an agenda, and we do need to drop the agenda and look at the team. The manager will pick the best players and whoever plays, we want to win the game.”
The following morning, most major media outlets led their England coverage with the news that Rooney will be restored to a No.10 role against Uruguay. Such is the way of things. It is, as Lampard says, a fixation, and perhaps in some quarters an agenda. Where England is concerned Rooney is ever the story, and will remain so regardless of whether or not Roy Hodgson’s men return from Sao Paulo as winners.
It will be Rooney’s 10th World Cup match. He is still waiting for his first goal. It is a statistic which would have seemed impossible to anyone who watched him tear up Euro 2004 as an 18-year-old force of nature and, in a tournament which has already seen the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Robin van Persie make their mark, it is one he will not want to accompany him back to England.
He is still only 28 but the sense that this is Rooney’s last chance to do his talent justice at a World Cup is hard to escape. Many have pontificated on issues of fitness and professionalism but ultimately it is the thrilling rise of Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley – a player whose power and vibrancy mark him out as the most natural heir – that seems the biggest threat to his privileged status with England.
Sterling, England’s stand-out performer against Italy, remains in awe of Rooney. “He’s a world-class player, someone I watched when I was young and someone I look up too, and playing with him at the training camp these last couple of weeks has been a real honour,” he gushed on Tuesday. The Liverpool starlet was also unequivocal in his assertion that he would gladly play anywhere to accommodate his idol, even as many others insist he should not have to.
Hodgson has remained loyal to Rooney and it is easy to see why. His talent has beguiled every England manager since Sven Goran Eriksson handed him his debut a decade ago and for much of that time he has been too important to leave out, regardless of form or mindset.
But the emergence of Sterling and Barkley has changed the landscape. Rooney, in fairness, appears fully aware of this fact; his influence against Italy may have been patchy but his effort was not, and the delightful cross which allowed Daniel Sturridge to equalise provided the first hint at a burgeoning understanding between two men England will need to click seamlessly against Uruguay.
Perception is fickle. All it will take for Rooney to dull the memory of ignominy and humiliating defeat in South Africa is one decisive performance on the biggest stage when his country needs him most. The alternative – being outshone by a clearly unfit Luis Suarez and an out-of-form Edinson Cavani – will likely see his tarnished England legacy cemented forever. The stakes could not be higher.