England must start Euro 2016 without Wayne Rooney

Paul Hyland 4 June 2016

It’s been a disappointing few tournaments for England.  They didn’t turn up to Euro 2008, were humiliated by Germany in 2010, were fortunate to take Italy to penalties in the quarter final in 2012, and the less said about the 2014 World Cup the better.  

With Euro 2016 set to kick off in France next week, scarcely has there been so little expectation of an England side heading into a major international tournament.  Gone are the days of that so-called ‘golden generation’, destined to add to England’s solitary tournament win of fifty years ago.  And so with it should go England’s reliance on the sole lasting relic of that underachieving squad – captain Wayne Rooney.  

That’s not to say he’s anything other than an immensely talented player. He is. In an erratic season for Manchester United, the England striker’s two-month absence to knee ligament damage sustained away to Sunderland removed so much of their attacking impetus. In a Premier League tie at Anfield in January, Rooney secured a smash-and-grab win with his side’s only shot on target.  Two months later, United were back, this time in Europe, and without their captain succumbed to a two nil defeat, never looking in danger of grabbing the goal that could change the complexion of the tie.  In short, a lack of Rooney exposed United’s weaknesses.

But on international level, Rooney’s absence also exposed England’s strengths.  It allowed the national side to unshackle the two best strikers in the Premier League without any selection headaches.  Not even the might of the world champions could faze them.  In March's stunning 3-2 turnover of Germany, in came Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, and England played with a freedom and swagger so often lacking against the international scene's better sides.  

Facing the iconic steps of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Kane took his time to receive the ball, leave Mesut Özil and Emre Can standing and rifle across one of the world’s finest goalkeepers.  Jamie Vardy’s was even better.  A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of trickery turned a low cross into a stunning goal as the foxes front man flicked deftly past Neuer to equalise.  Against the best the world has to offer, these were hardly players with the weight of the world on their shoulders. 

Perhaps we’ve asked too much of one man.  We thrust a seventeen-year-old youngster into the international limelight after a beautiful strike against Arsenal in October 2002 handed relegation-battling Everton an unlikely and vital win.  In 2004 he found himself lifted straight into the national team as the golden ticket to ending that long wait for a trophy that's become as much a part of the culture of English football as off-key trumpets blaring out ham-fisted imitations of the Great Escape soundtrack.  For all of the prodigious Scouser’s talents, he was never going to do it alone.

Kane and Vardy’s arrival into the team has been low key by contrast.  The Spurs hitman spent an unsuccessful loan spell at Norwich City before suddenly cementing himself as the mainstay of a title-challenging team.  Even this season there were question marks as to whether he could repeat the previous season’s superb goal return.  Vardy spent the better part of his career in relative obscurity before firing Leicester City to a Premier League title.  Both of them have hit form well before the hype has had a chance to catch up.

And the dampening of expectations after a 2014 World Cup that failed to yield a single victory might be the biggest ace up Roy Hodgson’s sleeve.  These days, so little is expected of the England team that its star turns can play free of the weight of expectation that laid so heavily on previous generations of English wunderkinder.

In this week’s friendly against Portugal, the England coach opted for what looked like a happy medium by playing Rooney behind the two strikers.  The problem is, he isn’t quite creative enough to provide service to the forward players and not quite clinical enough to oust either from the team sheet.  And as England struggled to overcome a ten-man, Ronaldo-less Portugal, the lack of incision, ingenuity and inventiveness was clear as day.  

Now, England have themselves in a double-bind of their own making.  Handing Rooney the honour of the captaincy affords him the privileged position of a guaranteed starter.  But with him in the team, either a better striker finds himself consigned to the substitutes’ bench, or the midfield loses all pretence of balance.  Their best hope of a successful campaign is to select by form, and not by name.  And for that, they must take the difficult step of removing their captain from the team.