KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 24: Wayne Rooney of England reacts during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between England and Italy at The Olympic Stadium on June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Rooneo, Rooneo, whereforth art thou Rooneo?
In the leadup to England's Euro 2012 campaign, much of the focus was on a man who wasn't even going to be playing in the first two group stage matches. While the John Terry vs. Rio Ferdinand spat took some of the attention away, England's great hope was that Wayne Rooney would return from suspension to somehow inspire his nation to glory.
That's been the narrative for every major tournament since 2004. In 2006, Rooney's metatarsal, broken at Stamford Bridge, captured England's imagination. His race against time, oxygen tent and all, was the major story of England's World Cup campaign - until his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho's nether regions during the quarterfinal against Portugal stole the headlines.
2010 saw Rooney mired in extracurricular scandal. Many speculated that the tabloids chasing after him in the buildup would lead to poor performances; whatever the cause, poor performances are exactly what the nation received. And in 2012, much gnashing of teeth ensued following the Manchester United forward's straight red card against Montenegro's Miodrag Džudović during the final match of qualifying.
How many games would he miss? How badly would this hurt England's chances of summertime glory? At first, rumour had it that it would just be one match, but a ruling from UEFA banned him from all three group-stage games, later reduced to the first two on appeal. At that point, the narrative was set.
For England to succeed in the tournament, they needed to do enough to keep them within striking distance in the first two matches for the Wayne Rooney cavalry to arrive*. They did exactly that, holding France to a credible 1-1 draw and then beating Sweden in a 3-2 thriller to put the knockout rounds within easy reach. England expected - no, confided - that Wayne Rooney would then do his duty.
*I can't figure out whether I like the mental image of Wayne Rooney riding a zebra or Wayne Rooney as a centaur more. They're both things to cherish, nurture and love, I think.
And Wayne Rooney disappointed once more. Yes, he did score the game's only goal as England dispatched hosts Ukraine, but it's difficult to give him much credit for scoring a point-blank header in a crowded box, and England looked disturbingly weak against a team that most would consider the worst in the group, at least on paper.
No matter; they advanced to the quarterfinals, where Italy were their opposition. With Andrea Pirlo in stunning form, the obvious response from England was to drop Rooney deeper, having harass the Azzurri midfielder and never letting him settle. Considering his reputation for boundless energy, this should not have been a problem, and doing so would take Italy's main threat out of the game. That would then force them to rely on Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele di Rossi, still excellent but lesser players than Pirlo, as their main creators.
Rooney did nothing of the sort, opting to stay very high and allowing Pirlo to run the show. When he got the ball, he looked bright at times (especially in the first half), but faded badly at others, breaking up England attacks during moments where they just couldn't afford to lose the ball. England, reliant on Rooney as their primary attacking conduit, could do very little about it, eventually resorting to punting long towards Andy Carroll in the hopes that something magical would happen.
It wouldn't. England defended well enough to take the match to penalties; thereby ensuring that they'd lose the match on penalties*. For the seventh time since 1996, they failed to reach the semifinals of a major tournament.
*England might well be the only nation who've managed to take all of the stress out of penalty kicks, an achievement which does not get nearly the attention it deserves.
While Rooney, strictly speaking, isn't really part of the perennially disappointing 'golden generation' of English footballers, he's undeniably England's finest talent, the one who's looked to as the man who can change matches in their favour. Fans have been waiting for him to do so since 2004, and have received precisely nothing in return.
At some point, the FA have to recognise that making a player the focal point of the team is only a viable option is that player is performing well. England are set up to take advantage of Rooney's ability to drop deep and create as well as burst forward and score goals, but unless he actually starts doing that on the international stage with any regularity, they can't rely on him as a panacea. That hasn't stopped years of them trying, however.
That's not to say that Rooney has been a consistent performer with United, either - he's most certainly had his ups and downs, and the latter half of his most recent campaign was so dubious that Sir Alex Ferguson has paid a good amount of money Shinji Kagawa, a top-notch talent whose favoured position is Rooney's own. But unlike England, United do sometimes coax good performances out of their erratic superstar.
England demonstrated that they have the ability to live in a Rooney-less world with their play in the first two matches of Euro 2012. It might be time to look at that possibility a little more seriously. The idea that Wayne Rooney is undroppable needs to die for Roy Hodgson to make his team actually work.