For a player retiring from international football as his country's record goalscorer, with 53 goals from 119 caps, it seems odd to be wondering if Wayne Rooney might have jumped ship a little prematurely.
After all, his move to Everton, and his return to regular first-team football, have been been enough to earn him an international recall. England manager Gareth Southgate, who dropped Rooney last March, apparently enjoyed the goals against Stoke City and Manchester City so much that he called him and asked him to return. But Rooney's mind was made up.
Consider also: When it comes to forwards, England aren't all that well stocked at the moment. Beyond obvious first-choice Harry Kane, there's a whole lot of possibilities and very few certainties. This can perhaps be illustrated by the fact that Jermain Defoe, at the tender age of just 274, made a useful and successful return to the side against Lithuania earlier this year. This is not an England that can afford to overlook its veterans.
Consider, too: With 119 caps, Rooney is just six behind England's all-time record holder Peter Shilton, who had the advantage of being a goalkeeper and so less vulnerable to age. England have four qualifiers left in their effort to reach the next World Cup, along with the inevitable clutch of friendlies. Even if he'd got there off the bench, he might have got there.
And consider, finally: There's a World Cup coming. As Rooney himself notes in his retirement statement, one of his “very few regrets is not to have been part of a successful England tournament side.” If they qualify, then England won't go into Russia 2018 as one of the favorites. But they will almost certainly go in as one of those teams that, given the right combination of performance and fortune, could win it. Rooney bowing out next summer with a World Cup winner's medal was always hugely, almost vanishingly unlikely. But retirement makes it impossible.
The regretful fact that Rooney never lifted a major trophy with England is, of course, at least partly his doing — he was a major part of the first team in each of his six tournaments, and he rarely did himself justice. Fabio Capello once lamented that he “only plays well in Manchester.” But he limped out of his first, Euro 2004, having briefly threatened to tear it to pieces, and was then recovering from injury for the next two World Cups.
In any case, international tournaments are snapshots, four weeks every two years, and even for the best teams the stars have to align. Rooney, by contrast, has had the circus of England roiling around him, the head-scrambling currents of neuroses and hype, the reigns of Steve McLaren and Roy Hodgson. Of the nine players to have won 100 or more caps for England, only two of them — Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton — ever won a tournament. The rest, from Billy Wright through Shilton, from David Beckham to Rooney, all timed their careers slightly wrong. England are generally one of the better teams in the world. But it's rare to the point of freakishness that they're the best.
The numbers recall an England player that was exceptional during qualifying, yet underwhelming at the most important points. Memory adds that most of his goals were forgettable, and holds up the early hype and his Manchester United success as unflattering reference points. And time works against him, too: The freshest part of Rooney’s England career is the strange sight of his managers moving him around the pitch, trying to find a suitable hole for their declining, yet somehow still totemic, peg.
We can only speculate how a return to the squad might have gone. But the fact that United didn't think he was going to be any use in a title bid, even from the bench, suggests it might not have been too impressive. Indeed, given his proximity to Shilton, it might even have come across as a little cynical. And it’s hard to argue that after more than 700 games of first-team football, it might be time to start managing his fitness. It's his body, and if he's finally decided to take care of it, then so be it.
But now that it's all over, perhaps the frustration — whether it came from unkindness, from hype-fueled disappointment, or from genuine concern — will ebb away as well, and we'll be able to arrive at a more nuanced picture. Perhaps Rooney's England performances were, at times, less than his ability should have ensured. But he was also briefly extraordinary, frequently very good, and committed and useful to the tune of 119 caps. His managers liked him, and so did his teammates. And as last lines go, they don't get much better than: He scored more goals than anybody else has ever done.