Wayne Rooney had earmarked the 2018 World Cup in Russia as his international swansong, but time ran out for the former England captain long before his confirmation on Wednesday that he will not play for his country again.
With two goals in two Premier League games for Everton since returning to his boyhood club from Manchester United this summer, Rooney had put himself on the brink of a remarkable return to the England fold for next month’s World Cup qualifiers after seemingly being cast aside by manager Gareth Southgate last season. Having won the last of his 119 caps against Scotland at Wembley last November, Rooney then failed to make either of the England squads for the international fixtures earlier this year.
His move from Old Trafford back to Goodison appeared to signal an admission on the player’s part that the remainder of his career would be focused solely on club football. That has now proved to be the case, with Rooney citing a desire to “focus all my energies on helping Everton to be successful,” but the timing of his decision to announce his international retirement is still a surprise.
Rooney has spent virtually his entire career proving his doubters wrong and silencing the critics; a return to the England stage, and perhaps even a place in the World Cup squad, would have given him the perfect opportunity to show that he still has what it takes at the highest level. But the reality is that time has caught up with Rooney and at least by closing the door now, he has ended his international career at a time of his choosing rather than allowing the decision to be made for him.
When the dust settles on his career, he will be able to say that he decided when to go. Rooney revealed in his statement that he turned down the chance to join up with Southgate’s squad for the forthcoming games against Malta and Slovakia but the truth is that Rooney’s career ended in March, when he was overlooked for the squad for games against Germany and Lithuania.
As England captain, it will have stung to have been omitted but after playing just once for United in over a month at that time, Southgate had little option but to leave Rooney out. When he repeated that decision in May,ignoring Rooney for the games against Scotland and France without even calling the player to inform him, the picture was clear for the 31-year-old. So returning to the fold now would only delay the inevitable because Southgate wants to look to the future and has the forwards to be able to plan without Rooney.
Harry Kane is clearly England’s first-choice striker, and perhaps even the best candidate to replace Rooney as captain on a permanent basis, while Jamie Vardy and Jermain Defoe offer goals and experience. Then there is Marcus Rashford, the United forward who arguably initiated the end of Rooney’s United career following his emergence in 2016. Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck also offer options if they can avoid further injuries.
With Rooney’s Everton teammate Dominic Calvert-Lewin showing his potential in Ronald Koeman’s team, and also rated highly by Southgate after his performances in the World Cup-winning England U-20 squad, the future is one that looks bright without England’s all-time record goalscorer. Southgate would struggle to accommodate Rooney in the starting line-up, so why bring him back?
If he was genuinely considering offering Rooney a recall, then the former captain has done Southgate a favour by falling on his sword. Having already made the tough — and correct — decision to cut Rooney from the squad last season, bringing him back would only precede having to make that decision again somewhere down the line. And so Southgate can now plan for the World Cup with his emerging young team, free of worry about the distraction posed by Rooney. Meanwhile, Rooney can now focus on giving Everton the very best of his final years in the game.
Walking away from the scene after the World Cup would have given Rooney some kind of satisfaction, but he knows that his time has passed and that it is time for the new generation to take over.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_