Wayne Rooney Could Still Be England’s Most Important Player at Euro 2016

The previous week, Marcus Rashford became the youngest ever player to score on his England debut with his goal against Australia at the Stadium of Light.

At the age of only 18 years and 208 days, Rashford had quickly made himself indispensable to an England squad already brimming with youthful talent.

While England celebrated the arrival of another young hero, it was perfectly understandable that the television cameraman immediately sought out the reaction of that symbol of the old order, Wayne Rooney, who was sitting on the bench.

If they were expecting a frown they would have been disappointed (they found that instead on Daniel Sturridge), for Rooney wore a large smile on his face.

The England captain was naturally happy for a young Manchester United team-mate, but his relaxed grin also revealed his own inner confidence and contented state of mind.

Rooney does not look upon England’s new generation as rivals, but rather as allies who can help him remain and thrive on the international stage.

And sure enough, just over an hour later, Rooney proved that by coming off the bench to score a wonderful goal made by Rashford and Raheem Sterling.

On the halfway line, Rashford eased the ball in to the path of Sterling who raced in to the Australian half and laid the ball in to Rooney who struck the ball high in to the net.

Of course the night belonged to Rashford, but here was Rooney with a not so subtle reminder that he still had a lot to offer in an England shirt.

It is a dangerous game writing off Rooney, and one I have dabbled in myself, but on the eve of Euro 2016 he appears to be finding form and fitness at the right time. 

Since his stunning emergence at Euro 2004, English football has patiently waited for Rooney to enjoy another truly great international tournament.

At the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, Rooney arrived injured, and when he did finally get on the pitch he quickly got himself sent off against Portugal.

Four years later in South Africa, despite having just enjoyed his best personal season at United, Rooney played like an impostor, tired and heavy, and he is more remembered for abusing his own fans than anything he did with a football.

Banned for the first two games of Euro 2012 for an unnecessary sending off at the end of the qualifiers, Rooney made no real impact as England prematurely slumped out of yet another tournament.

His former England manager Fabio Capello rather damningly observed, “[Rooney] only plays well in Manchester,” as reported in the Daily Mirror.

Two years ago at the World Cup finals in Brazil, Rooney did manage a goal, his first at a World Cup, but it was largely forgotten as a wretched England failed to win a game, and were knocked out in the group stages.

In the two years since that embarrassing summer, however, Rooney has actually been revitalised by the emergence of so much new young talent around him, and scored 12 more international goals to become England’s record all-time goalscorer.

Rooney’s game has also evolved, and it is about more than just goals now, which means he is unlikely to lead the England forward line at Euro 2016.

That will be the task given to Harry Kane in France, while Rooney adapts to a deeper role as a No. 10 or in midfield behind him.

Towards the end of last season, the same change happened in club football as well, where Rooney endured a largely difficult season at Old Trafford and scored his lowest total of goals since he arrived there 12 years ago.

However, deployed in midfield in the FA Cup final, Rooney delivered from his new deeper position when it mattered. With United trailing, he squirmed his way past four Crystal Palace players to set up United’s crucial late equaliser for Juan Mata.

This is the template for England where Rooney can use his vision and passing to serve Kane, Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli.

Rooney is playing so well in his new position because he has come to accept he is no longer a striker and better suited to this move further back.  

There is no frustration, or resentment; frankly he just seems happy and almost relieved at this new role.

“It’s certainly as good as I’ve felt going into a tournament and that’s largely because I’m injury-free,” he said on Wednesday this week, per the Guardian. “I’ve had little concerns and niggles going into previous tournaments playing on my mind but I have no concerns about that now. Physically, I feel fine. Mentally, I’m in a good place.”

Rooney is in a good place because he has been given a chance he didn’t expect this summer. 

At his absolute peak as a player, he had to watch the golden generation of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Frank Lampard all retire, and with them, he must have feared his best chance of winning a major tournament had gone too.

But now, fit and in form, and surrounded by a new generation, Rooney could still enjoy his best ever summer.