Wayne Rooney’s 3-match ban for violent conduct to be served in the upcoming 2012 European Nations Finals in Poland & Ukraine, while subject to an appeal by the FA to UEFA, is likely to be upheld. Fabio Capello therefore has a dilemma to solve, not just who to play instead of Rooney in a group stage he will play no part in, but whether to take his best player at all.
It’s a dilemma that Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson, & Sven Goran Eriksson all experienced as managers of England. All had to choose whether to take an injured talisman to a major international tournament. Greenwood took Kevin Keegan to the 1982 World Cup despite an injured back which eventually kept him out of all but the last few minutes England played in the tournament, Keegan missing a golden chance to score which would have put England through to the next stage. Bobby Robson selected Bryan Robson for the 1986 World Cup, even though he had suffered a dislocated shoulder earlier in the season which was still troubling him. England struggled with their under-par captain in the side until a recurrence of the injury forced him out of the tournament. Eriksson chose David Beckham in his squad for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea following Beckham’s supposed recovery from a broken metatarsal bone in his foot. A clearly unfit Beckham played, but the injury even contributed to a goal which helped put England out against Brazil, Beckham pulling out of a tackle in midfield, undoubtedly to protect his injured foot, leading to Rivaldo’s equalizer just before half-time. Eriksson then repeated his decision in 2006, this time selecting Michael Owen who had played only 30 minutes from the bench in one game since breaking a metatarsal the previous New Year. Also selected was Wayne Rooney, who had broken his metatarsal in April. To compound the decision Eriksson chose Theo Walcott, then yet to play a single top-level club match, as one of his other two strikers.
In each case the manager felt compelled to select players he felt were irreplaceable even though they would inevitably be unable to participate fully, hoping that they would add much-needed class to an otherwise ordinary squad, or at least contribute enough to justify selection. In each case those hopes went unfulfilled. History tells us that selecting unfit players for international tournaments, no matter their talent, is rarely a success.
Rooney’s case, of course, is different in one very important way. He will be unavailable for selection for the group stages not through injury but suspension. Should England get through, a fit Rooney would be available to play in subsequent rounds. There are those who would say that selecting your best player and your only truly world-class one, on that basis requires less thought than Einstein resitting GCSE Physics. No matter the draw, England are certainties to qualify for the knockout stages where a fresh Rooney will provide added impetus when it’s most needed. Whoever might be selected in Rooney’s place would be a makeweight and unlikely to play anyway.
Rarely is it asked however, is Rooney really world-class? Undeniably a fantastic performer at club level, he’s been untouchable over a number of years domestically. Internationally it’s not quite so clear cut. His goals-per-game ratio is a shade better than one in three. Still a respectable return, but not as good as players like Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker, Michael Owen or Alan Shearer who all scored around one every two games or better. Rooney’s ratio is more closely comparable with players like Tony Woodcock, Paul Mariner, or Francis Lee. Very good players, but not world-class, and certainly not irreplaceable. Rooney has the ability to do more than just score goals, but a striker is judged in the end by goals and Rooney is no exception. Here is the real nub of the matter. Further examination of Rooney’s record shows his last tournament goal was on the 21st June 2004. By the time he takes to the field next summer, if he does, it will be 8 years since he last scored a tournament goal. Admittedly, 2006 was hampered by injury and England didn’t qualify in 2008, but since bursting onto the international scene as a teenager in 2004 he has hardly set tournaments alight, and that has always been the yardstick of the true great.
Simply put, Wayne Rooney, England’s best player, isn’t quite good enough to justify selection only to sit in the stand for the group stages. When players have been selected while unfit in the past, effectively unable to contribute to the early stages, those players have been considered at the time to be irreplaceable. Those selections have with hardly an exception proven to be mistakes, and Rooney is no more irreplaceable now than Keegan, Robson or Owen were then. Assuming that England will breeze through their group is the kind of arrogance which has in the past regularly contributed to the undoing of their chances. In addition, the idea that the player selected in Rooney’s place won’t be needed was disproven in 2006 when England were desperate for a striker but had Walcott along for the ride and considered unready for selection. An injury and a sending-off of strikers in the first two games would leave England unable to field two for the final, possibly all-important group game.
It’s vital that Fabio Capello has as many viable options as possible to cover all eventualities if England are to achieve even the qualified success of progressing to the later stages of Euro 2012. That requires picking four fit and in-form strikers, and for once no passengers on the trip.