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On cusp of record, Wayne Rooney's England legacy remains uncertain

Barring something utterly freakish, Wayne Rooney will soon become England’s leading all-time scorer. And yet his reputation remains uncertain; there is a sense that Rooney, for all his goals, remains unfulfilled in an England shirt. 

In the first 18 minutes of England’s comfortable 4-0 with over Lithuania on Friday, Wayne Rooney scored a goal and hit the woodwork twice. If all three efforts had gone in, he would have pulled level with Bobby Charlton’s all-time England record of 49 international goals. As it is he is on 47, but barring something utterly freakish, he will soon become England’s leading all-time scorer. And yet his reputation remains uncertain; there is a sense that Rooney, for all his goals, remains unfulfilled in an England shirt. 

There lingers still the memory of the young Rooney, that explosive, pugnacious force of nature. In the golden summer of 2004, he looked to be  almost single-handedly leading England to the European Championship before he was trodden on by the Portugal defender Jorge Andrade in the quarter-final and broke his metatarsal. The high point of his England career was probably in the final group game against Croatia, as he surged forward and, with glorious inevitability, made it 3-1. 

Then, he was a phenomenon, a player for whom the most astonishing script seemed to have been written. He played superbly in an important win over Turkey in qualifying, scored a vital goal away to FYR Macedonia, got four goals in the group stage. He was young, unspoiled, could do no wrong. The gleeful incredulity that has surrounded Harry Kane over the past six months has reawakened memories of the hype around Rooney then, the sense that he couldn’t keep delivering these perfect punchlines, and yet he did. And he was three years younger then than Kane is now: there seemed to be no limit. 

But since the incident with Andrade, nothing – in an England shirt at least – has been quite the same. Rooney is already England’s leading scorer in competitive games, but most of those have come in qualifiers: in finals tournaments, he has been a disappointment. He wasn’t fully recovered from a broken metatarsal when he went to the World Cup in 2006, his frustration leading him to a red card for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in the quarter-final against Portugal. 

England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. At the 2010 World Cup, he seemed unsettled – perhaps by the knowledge that tabloid revelations about his private life were imminent – and ended up swearing at England fans who booed him after the 0-0 draw against Algeria. 

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Rooney was suspended for the first two games of Euro 2012 after being sent off for witlessly kicking out at the Montenegro defender Miodrag Dzudovic in the final qualifier. He bundled in the only goal in the final group game against Ukraine, but was left fruitlessly chasing hopeful clearances as England was overwhelmed in the quarter-final against Italy, drawing 0-0 before losing on penalties. 

In Brazil, he did, at least, score his first World Cup goal, touching in a Glen Johnson cross at the back post to level against Uruguay, but any credit he gained for a decent performance in that game was only making up for the frustration of the opener against Italy when he had looked desperately out of sorts playing on the left. Besides, no England player came home with reputation enhanced from a World Cup campaign that had ended almost before it had begun. 

Since those heady days 11 years ago, Rooney has never really done it in a tournament for England and the nature of international football is that it is only performances on the biggest stage that are remembered. Michael Owen has his goal against Argentina in 1998, Alan Shearer his goals against the Netherlands at Euro 96, Gary Lineker his equalizer against West Germany in 1990 and his hat-trick against Poland in 1986. Rooney has his four goals from Euro 2004, but even they are overshadowed by the sense that they were the start of something that never quite developed: a brilliant opening scene in a film that petered out. 

Two factors, perhaps, have conspired against him. His versatility means that he has often been shunted around for others. He has played as the lead striker for England, as the second striker, on the left and on the right. That is a gift, and one that can be invaluable if injuries and suspensions mount up during a tournament, but it also means his position is often ill-defined, confusing both him and the expectations of those around him. In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, for instance, he played as the second striker for England, as he did for Manchester United; by the time the tournament came around, he was the lead striker at United and ended up playing too high for England, as though trying to replicate his United role. 

But his greatest curse, in terms of perception, is to achieved too soon, a flash of extraordinary promise followed by a failure ever quite to live up to it – even if his achievements, looked at rationally, are remarkable. A record of 47 goals in 102 internationals, many of them not played at center forward, speaks of extraordinary consistency. What Rooney needs now, though, if his legacy is not to be of slightly frustrated ambition, of undelivered potential, is a glorious performance at a major tournament. That might not be fair, but that balmy evening in Lisbon set the bar high.