Last Friday’s World Cup qualifier couldn’t have gone any more swimmingly for Wayne Rooney.
Captaining the England squad for only the second time, the Manchester United striker scored a brace as the Three Lions routed the world football’s worst team, San Marino, 5-0 at Wembley.
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Wearing the captain’s armband in place of the suspended Steven Gerrard, the match seemed almost like an audition for Rooney to see if the Liverpool native had what it takes to captain the national side on a more regular basis.
Even though the opposition was made up of a group of part-time players with regular jobs and students from a nation of just over 30,000 people, Rooney passed his test with flying colours, much to the delight of England manager Roy Hodgson.
Hodgson went so far as to anoint Rooney as "vice-captain," a role that doesn’t actually exist, but one that the former West Brom, Liverpool and Fulham manager explained would serve as a standby for the permanent captain when he wasn’t available due to injury or suspension.
With all parties delighted by the results of Friday’s trial captaincy, a very real inevitability belied the whole "tryout" aspect of it. Because of age and a lack of real alternatives, whether he is ready or not, Rooney is very soon going to be the permanent captain of both the national side and Manchester United and it would behoove him to be ready.
Petulance and a short-tempered nature have been hallmarks of the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s career, thus far. A mercurial talent in the mold of United icon Eric Cantona, Rooney will be sooner than later be forced to rein in the retaliatory challenges and propensity to argue every little call with officials.
A consummate professional, current England skipper Gerrard is nearly 32 and constantly battling injury. Even older, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard falls under the same category. With Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, though experienced veterans, not possessing the particular governance necessary and Joe Hart simply too young, the need for Rooney to step up in the England setup is obvious.
The similarities to Rooney’s situation at the club level are striking with Sir Alex Ferguson looking towards his star hit man for an assertion of leadership.
United’s present captain, Nemanja Vidic’s crunching style results in prolonged spells on the sidelines and the persistent injuries have taken a toll on the Serbian’s knees. His partner in central defence, Rio Ferdinand, has experienced a similar fate with injury and fellow long-serving defender Patrice Evra appears to be heading down that road, as well. Living legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, though seemingly ageless, are now only role players with retirement on the near horizon.
Like with the national team, Rooney must seize the moment at United, but the fear in having him at the helm of both sides is obvious. A man capable of scoring wonder goals and turning matches on their heads in an instant, Rooney has proven to be just as likely to throw a fit of pique like he did last year in a Euro qualifier against Montenegro, in a senseless tackle on defender Miodrag Dzudovic that saw the Merseysider shown red.
It is the former and not the latter Rooney that both club and country need right now. Rooney insists that he’s learned from his previous impetuousness and his disciplinary record seems to corroborate this with only a single booking in the last calendar year, but the need for caution surrounding the player’s ability to lead is understood.
Fortunately for Rooney, circumstance will dictate that he receives the benefit of the doubt. Bereft of real options elsewhere, Hodgson and Ferguson will be forced to trust Rooney to guide the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley through a period of turnover at both the national and club ranks.
Being both England and United’s most skilled player, Rooney will be always be propelled to the forefront, but talent has never equated with leadership and this has been proven time and time again through the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and even Cristiano Ronaldo. Rooney has the opportunity to buck this trend and it’s up to him to embrace this role.
As Rooney prepares to hand back the captain’s armband to Gerrard for Tuesday’s match against Poland, the striker knows that last week’s performance certainly backed the declaration of a newfound maturity that he made last week.
For all anybody knows, though, that could have been a one-off; an oasis of responsibility in a desert of juvenility. Rooney must realize that his actions need to continue to speak louder than words and let incidents like the one against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup fade away.
Wayne Rooney’s ascendancy to the permanent captaincy for club and country might be inevitable at this point, but it’s up to him to make sure that it isn’t regrettable.