Rooney’s name has been inked into the first XI since 2003 and at the age of 30 he stands alone as the country’s record goalscorer and most capped outfield player.
But, in a cramped press conference room at Ljubljana’s Stadium Stozice, Southgate confirmed his status as a Three Lions untouchable was at an end.
Rooney was offered the chance to duck the pre-match press conference after news of the selection spilled out but took his place alongside Southgate and spoke with dignified magnanimity.
“I’ve played 13 years non-stop for England, given everything, and a time comes when you’re not the first name on the team sheet, like I have been in the past,” he said.
“I understand it’s a difficult decision for Gareth. I respect the decision totally. All I can do is prepare for the game if needed.”
Southgate has certainly acted bravely in confronting the issue of Rooney’s faltering form head on. To do so without the comfort blanket of a permanent contract is arguably even more fearless.
But he made several things clear as he explained his verdict: Rooney remains England captain, his leadership is more apparent than ever and the dropping was not intended to appease any critics in the media or the stands.
Rooney was booed by a small but audible section of the Wembley crowd after a modest display in the 2-0 win over Malta and has duly lost his midfield slot to Eric Dier while Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson inherits the armband.
Southgate said: “It is not an easy decision to take because of the respect I have for him as a player and person and captain of this team but we felt it was the right decision. It is a football decision. On a human level it‘s a difficult decision because I don’t like the idea there might be an element of satisfaction for some people that he’s not in the team. I’m probably more annoyed by that than he is.
“He’s had to live with that sort of reaction throughout his career. But I know the implications when you’ve got a big player, somebody who is a worldwide figure, and it has repercussions for him.
“He is still captain of this team while I am in charge. Everything I have seen this week has only improved and reinforced the feeling of how impressive a leader he is of this squad.
“I think there’s been a depth to his leadership that, unfortunately, people outside the group won’t have seen.
“I don’t know what his long-term plans are but he’s almost like a coach within the dressing room for us already. That’s a huge compliment to his football intelligence and his understanding of the group, what’s right for the group. He’s clearly still got a lot of football in him still and a big contribution to make.”
Southgate adopted an almost paternal tone at one stage as he reflected on the endless speculation that comes with Rooney’s wider celebrity.
“People forget, those that haven’t turned out for their country focus all the attention on those that have given more than any others,” he said.
“I don’t get that at all. I remember Sven (Goran- Eriksson, former England manager) talking about Wayne as a youngster and saying ‘look after him, he’s your future’ and I’m not sure we’ve always done that.”
Rooney, having pushed for the chance to front up to the press, offered nothing controversial or divisive and instead chose to underline his role as captain of the squad at large — if not the starting team.
On a trying month that has also seen him slip into a supporting role at club level, he said: “I’m not denying it’s a difficult period, obviously I’ve been on the bench for Manchester United for the last few games but that’s part of football.
“I’m ready to come on if needed but, to be honest, hopefully I’m not needed. Hopefully we win the game and I don’t have to come on to help us win it.
“I’ll support the players 100% and try to help the players get three points.
“I have great pride in playing for my country, whether it is starting or coming from the bench or in a squad of players that I’m pleased to be involved with.
“You want to be on the pitch but my role as captain won’t change around the hotel with the players, that remains the same. There is no embarrassment. I show great pride playing for my country.”