(Reuters) - Wayne Rooney made the announcement of his retirement from the national team within hours of another England great Gary Lineker saying that he felt the country’s leading goalscorer was “under appreciated.”
As a 17-year-old prodigy, Rooney was the last of a particularly talented generation of players, who included Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
Together they were expected to win England back respect, if not honours, as the country that always considered itself a major footballing power struggled to emulate its solitary tournament success at the 1966 World Cup.
When Rooney burst on to the tournament scene by scoring four goals at the 2004 European Championships, his impact was even compared to that of Pele. Already the youngest player to be capped by England, Rooney was seen as the totem who could do his country what his outrageously talented predecessor had done for Brazil.
But while Rooney achieved every honour in the club game, eclipsing Bobby Charlton as Manchester United’s leading scorer, his career with England was always more problematic, even though he ended as their most prolific goalscorer and most capped outfield player.
With the goals came injuries - like the broken metatarsal that blighted his 2006 World Cup campaign - and occasional flashes of temper as England’s talisman struggled to drag an inferior side up to his superior standards.
“[England] went through a time of being bereft of world-class talent - it was just him,” said Lineker.
”He’s gone to play in tournaments, sometimes not fully fit, sometimes fit, in a team that’s not really good enough, and he’s suffered a little bit from that.
When asked whether Rooney was under-appreciated, Lineker said: “He probably is. He’d be [one of Britain‘s] top 10 ever.”
Like most of the others in that elite group, Rooney experienced the frustration of tournament football when England underwhelmed rather than overcame.
Some observers believe that, like England, he was found out by the game’s top level when his record at tournaments was poor after 2004: he scored just once in 11 games at three World Cups.
But he was an automatic first choice for six England managers until Gareth Southgate omitted him from his squad earlier this year when his United career had come to a standstill.
It means Rooney played his final appearance for England against Scotland last November, a game that was followed by an apology after Rooney appeared drunk at a subsequent wedding party at the team hotel.
Rooney reacted to last season’s many disappointments with good grace, never dodging questions about his future and suggesting that he wanted one last hurrah with England at next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Ironically, the 31-year-old’s recent club form suggested that he might be able to achieve it, with two goals in as many matches since returning to Everton last month.
The latest of those came against Manchester City on Monday, when he bided his time before ghosting into the area to score almost unnoticed. In an instant he showed what the older Rooney might contribute, as the wise attacker profiting from younger legs around him.
At his peak Rooney was capable of outrageous skill, a striker to pluck goals from anywhere. But as his pace slowed, England toyed with playing him in midfield, an experiment that ended in failure when England were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland in the second round.
That led to the departure of manager Roy Hodgson, but not Rooney, who said he was simply happy to play anywhere.
Nothing showed that more than the night he beat Charlton’s England record by scoring his 50th goal against Switzerland in 2015. Back in the dressing room after the game, he was presented with a commemorative shirt, with 50 on the back.
Close to tears, Rooney addressed his team mates with a speech full of humility and pride outlining how much the “huge honour” of playing for England meant to him. For all the might-have-beens, that sense never left him even if his powers were beginning to diminish.
Charlton’s goal-scoring record had stood for 45 years; perhaps Rooney’s will last even longer.
Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Christian Radnedge