Gareth Southgate has said there is still a possibility he might invite Wayne Rooney out of international retirement for the World Cup if the former Manchester United striker maintains his form for Everton this season and is open to the idea of playing for England in Russia next summer.
Southgate said he would not discount the idea, saying it would be “foolish” to eliminate Rooney from his thinking, but he also called on England’s other players to show they can prosper without the man who won 119 caps for his country. Some of those players, Southgate said, had been guilty of “hiding” behind England’s record scorer.
Rooney announced on Wednesday that he was bringing an end to his 13-year international career, deciding to concentrate on his club career and turn down Southgate’s offer to return to England’s squad. Southgate had previously removed him as captain and dropped him from the squad, leading to one question at the press conference on Thursday about whether he felt like “the man who shot Bambi” but the England manager had wanted to recall the Everton striker for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia and is not ruling out the idea of similar conversations before that tournament.
“I don’t see why you ever shut the door on anything,” Southgate said. “I suppose we would have to see where he was at, where the squad was at, where everything else was at. But it would be foolish to say ‘no’ because anything is possible. A part of that question should go to Wayne because you have to respect his decision and the thinking behind it. But have I seen players change their minds? Yes, I think we all have.”
In the meantime, Southgate’s message to the other England players, with Harry Kane still not officially announced as the new captain, is that they now have to compensate for Rooney’s absence.
“Wayne has been somebody it may have been easy for the other players to hide behind because he was always the one who has carried the burden. I think that’s been unfair on him. Now everybody has the chance to take the mantle.
“Since Steven [Gerrard] retired, Wayne has probably had to carry that on his own. Even prior to that, he was carrying a lot of responsibility. He has done that tremendously well but now others have to grasp that initiative and responsibility. It is an opportunity for other people now.
“If we are gong to be an outstanding team we need players who are going to step up in the big moments and realise, every time they play for England, they have the chance to be involved in an iconic moment, a historic performance, and that they have that choice every time they go on the field. I want to give them their heads a bit and see what might be possible.”
Southgate confirmed he had been planning to recall Rooney until a telephone conversation made it clear the player did not want to be considered. “In one way there’s a tinge of sadness because, ideally, I would liked to have managed Wayne at his peak and not had to make some of the decisions I have had to make. I’ve taken no pleasure from not selecting Wayne and would have preferred to have had a relationship with him where he was in the team all the time and playing at a world-class level. Unfortunately I was the one who got him at this time. I think I’ve made decisions for the right reasons and I’ve always communicated them in a respectful way. As a manager, you can’t do any more than that. I sit comfortably with that. But I’ve not enjoyed it.
“I go back to the fact I was fortunate enough to play with him [in the Sven-Goran Eriksson era]. I played in his first competitive game when he came on in Liechtenstein. He’d played against Australia before that and, at that point, we were saying: ‘Who is this kid, what’s he up to?’ We’d seen his goal against Arsenal but he didn’t really say very much at all. By the end of the week it was: ‘Blimey, Sven’s got to pick him, he can’t possibly not pick him.’ We were seeing something I hadn’t seen since [Paul] Gascoigne in terms of all his different attributes.
“I see people debating now about whether Wayne deserves to be thought of as a legend of the English game. Well, he’s our most-capped outfield player and our record scorer. I’m not sure what else you have to do to be a legend. I guess people have a similar debate about [Lionel] Messi because he has not won a World Cup. We are talking about that level of player. We are talking about greats within their own country. We cannot compare ourselves to the Brazilians or Germans but Wayne has done pretty much everything else.
“Would Wayne have got in the World Cup team in 1966? I don’t know but what are the facts? The fact is he is our record goalscorer, scoring more than Bobby Charlton and more than Gary Lineker. How is Gary viewed? How is John Barnes viewed? In my eyes they are legends of the English game, for many different reasons. And I think Wayne is in that category.”
It was some eulogy from Southgate on the day he called up three uncapped players – Harry Maguire of Leicester City, Nathaniel Chalobah of Watford and the Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford – for the World Cup qualifier in Malta on 1 September and Slovakia’s visit to Wembley three days later.
Southgate is giving thought to starting with Jack Butland ahead of Joe Hart in goal and, returning to Rooney’s absence, the England manager also revealed talks had already started behind the scenes about finding a way to mark the player’s international career.
One idea would be a game at Wembley, much like Germany arranged their friendly against England in March as a tribute to Lukas Podolski. “It’s never been done before and we have obviously had World Cup winners before,” Southgate said. “Other people have to make the decision but we should absolutely be recognising his career with England and showing appreciation.
“I know already there is discussion around that and about how we may keep him involved with England, just as we are talking to Frank [Lampard] and Steven and others, as there is value to that experience being passed on.”
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