clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Wayne Rooney on course to be England's 'best' goalscorer?

It seems almost certain that England's captain will break his country's goalscoring record in the not-too-distant future. How does he stack up against those whose records he will surpass?

Michael Regan

No Englishman has ever scored more than five goals in an international match, and the last man to do so, Malcolm Macdonald, did so against Cyprus in 1975. As such, it's less than likely that Wayne Rooney will surpass Bobby Charlton's record of 49 goals tonight, however welcoming a mood San Marino might be in.

But Rooney, whose penalty against Norway last September was his 41st for his country, is only a hat-trick behind Jimmy Greaves on 44. Next comes Gary Lineker, on 48. Then there's Charlton. Given that England's road to France 2016 includes two games against San Marino, Lithuania and Estonia, and given that Rooney, as captain, will be playing as many of those games as injury and suspension allow, the odds are good that he'll be bothering Sir Bobby's mark before too long.

Speaking ahead of tonight's game against San Marino, the Roonster was appropriately humble-yet-excited about the whole prospect

I've seen clips of Jimmy Greaves and of course Bobby Charlton. It is there. It's there for me to overtake them all. I feel I'm capable of doing that ... It would be great. I'd never have thought that when I came into this England team that I would be best goalscorer.

Most prolific goalscorer? Yes. But "best" goalscorer? Less clear. After all, if we're looking strictly at who got their goals the quickest, then there's no contest. Rooney's record so far stacks up quite closely against Charlton's, 44 in 97 versus 49 in 106, or one every 176 minutes versus one every 193, though of course Charlton was more a midfielder by trade. Better than both, Lineker's 48 came in 80 appearances, or one every 136 minutes.

None, though, can approach the great Jimmy Greaves, who scored his 44 goals in just 57 appearances, one every 117 minutes. That included six hat-tricks, an England record, and he's also the only Englishman to score five goals in consecutive internationals. Add to all that his Messi-esque scoring record with Chelsea (124 goals by the age of 21) and later Tottenham, there's a fine argument to be made that he's the greatest English goalscorer of them all.

Yet his goalscoring touch abandoned him on the biggest stage, and ultimately his international career is frustratingly incomplete, defined by the one hat-trick he didn't score. Goalless through the three group games of the 1966 World Cup, an injury kept him out of the quarter-final against Argentina, in which his replacement Geoff Hurst scored the only goal, and then the semi, and though he was fit again by the time the final came around, Alf Ramsey wasn't the kind of man to be taking a risk.

Ray Wilson, England's left-back, later claimed that Greaves would have been dropped anyway. The Argentina game marked the competitive debut of Ramsey's 'wingless wonders', and the theory runs that Hurst was better suited to the demands of the formation than Greaves, who was "bloody useless in the air. The chances we were going to get at Wembley would be mainly in the air because the other teams were so outrageously defensive. There comes a time in that situation when you have to start hitting fifty-fifty balls. And that's where Geoff was so good." Greaves scored his last goal in 1967, aged 27, and his international career ended the same year; by age 31, he was done with football.

In his lack of impact at the very top of the international game, Greaves shares a lot with Rooney, whose goal against Uruguay last summer was his first in the World Cup. Obviously it's not entirely Rooney's fault that he's never been as deep into a World Cup as the other two — it's a team game, after all — but when it comes to the scoring of the most important goals, he can't compare with either Charlton or Lineker.

Each scored the goals that sit at the heart of one of England's unequivocally good World Cups. Lineker was the sharp edge of Bobby Robson and company's jaunt through Italia 90, scoring twice from the penalty spot against Cameroon — having also won both penalties, much to Cameroonian displeasure — and then equalising late against West Germany in the semi-final. Admittedly, that only set up a loss on penalties, but still. In total, he scored ten goals in World Cups, four in Italy and six in Mexico 1986, taking home the golden boot from the latter.

Also in that 1990 semi-final, he famously pointed to his eye shortly after Paul Gascoigne's yellow card began to sink in and his head started to melt. Keep an eye on him. Given that Rooney's most notable non-footballing contribution to England's tournament cause has been either berating his own fans down a television camera, or sharply stamping on Ricardo Carvalho's testicles, Lineker's probably winning the iconic off-the-ball moment competition here. Unless you really dislike Ricardo Carvalho.

But where Lineker's World Cup goals came in two glorious-ish defeats; Charlton's most notable came in 1966, on the road to glorious(-ish?) victory. Though he didn't score in the final — he and a young Franz Beckenbauer essentially kept one another company and out of the game — he scored twice in the semi-final as England defeated Eusebio's Portugal. If Hurst's (and Martin Peter's) goals are the most important in English football history, then Charlton's brace made them possible. That the first was an absolute ripper from twenty-odd yards only helps things.

This is the good thing about goalscoring records, you can slice them all sorts of ways. Yes, Rooney's getting to play San Marino more than most, but then Charlton wasn't exactly shy about helping himself against teams that passed for minnows back then; indeed, all four of his hat-tricks came in wins by seven goals or more. And sure, Lineker and Greaves scored quicker, but then Rooney's spent a fair amount of time both being moved around England's attack. Charlton, Greaves and Lineker each played under just two managers; Rooney is currently working with his fifth. And Rooney has already scored more competitive goals than any of his compatriots.

Ultimately, some kind of compromise seems like the right call. Maybe Rooney is never going to be the world-spanning attacking midfield titan that was Charlton, or the goal machine that was Greaves, or the poaching genius that was Lineker. But he sits somewhere between all three, at least stylistically, and he's eventually going to outstrip them all. At the very least, five England managers have seen enough goals in him to allow him to get those goals, and that's the basic equation that justifies almost any record.

That said, there is one rival who Rooney cannot hope to overcome. England's most consistent goalscorer and longlived goalscorer, who has been rattling them in since 1879 and who last scored in 2013. Own Goal currently lurks just behind Gary Lineker on 47, and though he doesn't score that regularly, he'll be going long after Rooney hangs up his boots and retires his scowl. And here is an important lesson for us all. However good Rooney is, however good anybody is, in the long run they will never surpass the simple pleasure of watching a poor, hapless defender putting the ball through their own net.