In dropping Wayne Rooney, Gareth Southgate has made his boldest indication yet that his sill be an England reign unlike what has come before it.
The former Middlesbrough boss has gone to great lengths to insist that he is not simply another FA yes man planted in the England dugout ready to smile for the cameras and comply with every wish with from upstairs.
Southgate means business, and even if he has to move back to managing the under-21s at the end of this year, he at least wants to do so knowing he made his mark on the senior side.
In that sense, dropping the captain is about as big an impression as you can make.
This wasn’t in Rooney’s script. When the 30-year-old forward (or whatever he is today) announced that he was to retire from international duty after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, his train of logical thought was that then-manager Sam Allardyce would at least have to keep him around until then – after all, if the English public’s time with their leader was running out, they’d demand to see as much of him as they possibly could, right?
Allardyce certainly thought so, and his assertions that he couldn’t control where Rooney played on the pitch were the words of a man desperate for Rooney to stumble into a position that he wouldn’t be wretched in and the problem would simply sort itself out.
Southgate gave Rooney a shot – he played him in the midfield role that he now claims suits him best, but it didn’t work. A poor performance against Malta was made to look far worse by the brilliance of Dele Alli and Jordan Henderson next to him, meanwhile Eric Dier, who is in far better form and would have deserved to start, was left kicking his heels on the bench.
Fortunately for the latter pair, the age of cronyism appears to be over. Southgate’s England is, it would seem, a meritocracy, where previous performances are actually taken into account.
That it should come so soon after his Manchester United demotion will come as a shock to Rooney, not least because he is clearly ignorant of how badly he’s been playing or how much of that is his fault.
Sniping at Allardyce on the manager’s way out was a typical deflection tactic, implying that the player’s poor performance against Slovakia was down to managerial direction rather than face the truth that he’s just not up to the standard anymore.
If Rooney thought that the fans would remain on his side despite the decline (and his refusal to acknowledge and accept said decline), then last Saturday would have been a massive wake-up call. There can’t be many examples of England fans booing the captain’s very name at Wembley – and yet the sound of dissent in the stands was unavoidable. They’d seen enough and they wanted change.
To that end, dropping Rooney will draw no backlash whatsoever for Southgate. Even if England lose to Slovenia on Tuesday night, nobody – apart from the dwindling few that still believe Rooney still has something to offer the national side besides scoring penalties against Eastern European teams – will be putting it down to the captain’s absence.
If anything, it will probably do for England what it did for Man United. Without Rooney slowing them down, José Mourinho’s team looked far livelier against Leicester, actually having a gameplan instead of having the formerly great player shoehorned into a system that didn’t need or want him.
Rooney will have complaints about being dropped, of course he will, but if he actually sat down and asked himself which of Dier, Lallana, Alli, Henderson, Theo Walcott, Jesse Lingard, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy or Marcus Rashford he feels he should be ahead of in the pecking order, he would either come to the same realisastion that the fans have come to long ago, or he will become even more entrenched in the fantasy land he’s been living in for some time now where his talents haven’t deserted him.
The historical dependency on Rooney was not entirely his fault of course, England’s dearth of world class players over the past decade made him stand out as one of their key players for a long time – and this fixation with him and demand that he be their saviour continued even after the signs of decline began to come to the surface.
However, that didn’t stop him from using that to his advantage when the questions around his place in the aside arose. Allardyce and Roy Hodgson were never going to drop him, and he knew it. They could pay lip-service to the idea and claim that everyone would have to earn a place in the squad, but when it came to it they were terrified of even entertaining the idea of omitting the captain and all-time top scorer.
It will be interesting to see how he reacts to this. Southgate isn’t José Mourinho, he can’t simply point to his years of experience and trophies and argue Rooney down. Publicly Rooney will accept the decision “for the good of the team” but when a player like that is dropped, especially if they aren’t quite sure why the boss has done that to them, the interim manager may have to expect a private backlash from his captain.