For years now, despite his legendary status, Rooney has strangely been a divisive figure in English football, blamed for the team’s under-achievement in tournament finals — successive managers accused of not being brave enough to drop him. Now, however, England know that simply jettisoning Rooney to the bench won’t solve anything on its own.
Southgate’s side were happy to come away with a point from Slovenia and thankful to three excellent saves from Joe Hart in a match in which even Rooney’s 73rd minute arrival could not inspire them to victory — although the result keeps them top of their qualifying group and on target for Russia 2018.
It was inevitable of course given Rooney’s global profile that the eyes of the world would be on England’s bench rather than on the field for a match that on any other day would probably pass without notice.
The Manchester United striker (can we still call him that?) had been unceremoniously dropped by Southgate just a week after being told he would retain the captaincy. It meant that having made his international debut at just 17 years and 111 days in a 3-1 defeat to Australia at Upton Park in February 2003, speculation was rife that his England career was coming to an unwelcome close.
This is a player who since making a dramatic impact in Euro 2004 has been his country’s talisman, even overtaking Bobby Charlton’s all-time scoring record with 53 goals in 117 caps. And yet, having been booed for a tepid performance in midfield against Malta at the weekend, everyone seemed to want him out.
Too slow to play up front, not dynamic enough to play deep in midfield and not good enough to be chosen ahead of Dele Alli in the number 10 position, so Southgate finally made the decision that successive England managers have refused to make — and put him on the bench.
The cameras, of course, followed his every move. But Rooney, who is not 31 until later this month, gave no clue about the inner turmoil he must be suffering right now, having also been left out the Manchester United side by new manager Jose Mourinho.
The performances of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is 35, proves age need not be a factor. But having started his career so young and having played 724 games for club and country already, the theory is that Rooney’s body and engine have simply taken too much of a pounding to continue playing at the very highest level.
Rooney has been written off plenty of times before and you suspect he will come back at some stage to prove his critics wrong — Manchester United will certainly hope so because he has several years remaining on his contract at Old Trafford — but the days when England built their team around him are clearly gone.
Without Rooney England struggled to create chances and struggled to find a final pass. In fact, against a Slovenia side who pressed high and worked incredibly hard, England were fortunate not to come away with a defeat.
There were one or two half-chances for Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, who always seems to choose the wrong option, but the moment which lingered in the memory most was a move in which Slovenia should twice have put England to the sword.
The first opportunity came when Eric Dier’s terrible back-pass allowed Bejkak to run through on goal, only to be denied by a sprawling save from Joe Hart. Then, as the ball ran free, Kurtic’s shot from 18m came back off Hart’s near post. A serious let-off for Southgate’s side.
Three quick-fire chances immediately after the break added to Slovenia’s belief, and England survived only thanks to a world class save from Hart at his near post to spectacularly deny Kurtic.
Hart, again, made an excellent save from Ilicic when Henderson’s poor pass allowed him to break through on goal and perhaps that was the moment which persuaded Southgate to finally give Rooney a call. Could the man who is meant to be the cause of England’s problems suddenly be the answer to them?
The big arrival came with 17 minutes to go, Rooney replacing Alli and taking up a role behind Sturridge for his 118th cap, collecting the captain’s armband from Henderson in the process. He came close to scoring, too, with a shot from the edge of the area which rattled narrowly wide, while Lingard also went close.
But there was no fairytale ending for the Manchester United man or for Southgate.
Oblak 7, Struna 6, Samardzic 6, Cesar 6 (Mevlja 68), Jokic 6, Kurtic 8, Krhin 6 (Omladic 84), Birsa 7, Verbic 7, Ilicic 6, Bezjak 7. Subs: Belec, Skubic, Jovic, Crnic, Novakovic, Trajkovski,, Kronaveter, Zajc, Pihler, Koprivec.
Hart 8, Walker 5, Cahill 6, Stones 7, Rose 6, Henderson 6, Dier 6, Alli 7, Walcott 5 (Townsend 62), Sturridge 5 (Rashford 82), Lingard 5. Subs: Forster, Smalling, Gibbs, Antonio, Keane, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rooney, Vardy,, Pickford.
Deniz Aytekin (Germany)