When Wayne Rooney was at his apex, he scythed through opponents with vigour and relentless energy, often doing so on the brink of reason, a snarling bull terrier of a player who could bare his teeth at any time.
Age has withered his temper as well as his legs, it appears. If the rage still burns within at 30 — almost 31– it has lapsed into impotence. If a younger Rooney was off his game, he would seethe as he tried to power himself back into form. The body no longer allows him the chance to do that. And his mind appears in the acceptance stage of a footballing decline.
Against Malta, there seemed little in the way of visible frustration, aside from a early hack at the shins of Maltese captain Andre Schembri, even when Rooney suffered the humiliation of being nutmegged in the first half by Ryan Camilleri. Sat deep in midfield, looking anything other than England’s answer to Andrea Pirlo, Rooney became a bystander to England’s young, thrusting forwards, his contribution little more than recycling the ball as England failed to build on a 2-0 lead they held before half-time.
Perhaps Rooney’s reticence is the price of captaincy and the responsibility it brings, but this performance was another to suggest the fire within him has dwindled into mere embers. He was hardly alone in disappointing during a tawdry 2-0 victory over the 176th-ranked Maltese that got worse as the game sunk into rank tedium, but after a week in which he had lashed out at his doubters, 90 minutes of crashing personal mediocrity was completed by a late, wayward shot. It received loud boos from a section of fans hardy enough to stay until the final whistle.
The critics have further evidence for the prosecution of the case against Rooney as viable option for club and country. Some, it appeared, had come to bury him. As the teams were read out in prematch, an audibly mixed reception greeted Rooney’s name. Marcus Rashford, meanwhile — named on the bench — was cheered to the rafters.
The first part of Gareth Southgate’s four-match audition to be permanent England manager was followed by his having to answer questions about his captain. It was telling that Southgate referred far more to Rooney’s off-field importance than what had taken place on the Wembley turf.
“His experience and leadership has been crucial throughout this week, not just on the pitch,” said Southgate. “It’s fascinating to get an insight into his world. Every debate seems to focus on him, the onus on him is unfair. He captains his country with pride.”
Southgate was asked directly about the booing: “I don’t understand, but that seems to be the landscape. I have no idea how that is supposed to help.”
Judging by Southgate’s supportiveness, Rooney will play on Tuesday in Slovenia. Against an opponent of far higher quality than Malta, a proper defensive midfielder like Eric Dier would seem a far better option than a player who was completely outshone by partner Jordan Henderson.
Henderson’s long passing set up Daniel Sturridge for England’s first, and the Liverpool captain’s surge into the box was the key to Dele Alli scoring on the rebound for the second. Rooney’s most obvious contribution was to over-hit the diagonal “Hollywood” balls he seems overly keen to attempt. A couple drifted out of play, with the crowd’s dismay following them there.
“Maybe we tried some passes which were too difficult at times when we could have moved the ball,” said Southgate, somewhat pointedly. Rooney had been by far the greatest offender on that score.
Alli, wearing the No. 8 shirt here, looks to have closed off the chance for Rooney to be restored to the No. 10 position. “Dele is perfect for that position,” said Henderson afterward, and the Tottenham man was very lively. Jesse Lingard, making his debut, was almost as impressive from the flank, and the pair of showed the capability to inject a zest and pace now long lost to their captain.
“He was outstanding,” said Southgate of Lingard. “He showed really good creativity.”
Sitting 30 yards behind those forwards, there was little chance for Rooney to add to his 53 strikes for England. There was one first-half shot saved by excellent Maltese goalkeeper Andrew Hogg and a late free kick, also saved.
Rooney is still waiting for his second goal of the season. He has been stuck three behind Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time Manchester United record of 249 since scoring at Bournemouth in United’s first game of the Premier League season, and lately has been benched by Jose Mourinho.
Rooney sees himself as a midfielder now, even if Mourinho disagrees.
“I feel I am not being given a chance, if that is the way I want to go in my career,” he said this week. Against Malta, Southgate gave Rooney such a chance in midfield, and found himself defending a player who no longer appears capable of summoning the bite and sharpness that once made him great.