By Zoran Milosavljevic
When 17-year-old Wayne Rooney became the youngest player to score for England in a Euro 2004 qualifier, he looked destined for a long and illustrious international career.
Now poised to win his 100th cap and just six goals behind Bobby Charlton’s all-time England scoring record of 49 goals, the bare statistics suggest he has achieved that.
But the strong suspicion remains that he has rarely delivered in an England shirt when it has really mattered.
The 29-year-old Manchester United striker hinted at some dissatisfaction himself before he reaches the 100-cap milestone in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia on Saturday (7pm).
“I could sit here saying I’ve got 200 caps and 100 goals for my country, but the ultimate is to win a trophy and that’s what we all want to do,” Rooney said.
“To be England’s greatest ever goal scorer would be massive. The record has stood for so many years, there have been plenty of players who haven’t been able to break it.”
Rooney has developed a reputation as football’s equivalent of a flat-track bully, regularly plundering the likes of San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein but rarely finding the net against the world’s best sides.
He failed to score in a major tournament between Euro 2004 and a 1-0 win over co-hosts Ukraine in Euro 2012, his only goal against high-profile opposition on the biggest stage coming in a 2-1 defeat by Uruguay in theis year’s World Cup which condemned England to an early exit.
Rooney has been England’s pack leader for some years but that role underlines both the team’s shortcomings against top-drawer opponents and his own failings when asked to trouble the world’s best defences.
His best performances and the bulk of his trophies in a Manchester United shirt came when he played alongsideCristiano Ronaldo, whose superior skill and ability so often gave Rooney the space he rarely creates for himself in big games.
Rooney has, however, fully deserved the unreserved faith of his managers at club and international level for his work rate and selfless readiness to play in less preferred positions for the greater good.
Asked to accommodate Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy before him and Robin van Persie in the current United team, Rooney has often been moved out wide or asked to bolster the midfield.
His present England role also requires that kind of personal sacrifice with young lions Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck staking their claims up front, while the gifted Raheem Sterling looks like a natural number 10, a position Rooney is often deployed in.
With such talent and a relatively easy qualifying group also including Switzerland, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino,England’s qualification for Euro 2016 is almost a foregone conclusion.
But once there, Roy Hodgson’s men will have to be a different team if they are to have a shot at glory and Rooney must rediscover the spark of his early international days if he is to earn his place among the country’s true greats.