Gareth Southgate has defended the inclusion of Wayne Rooney in the England squad for the coming fixtures with USA and Croatia, revealing he could even feature as captain in a tribute that has been discussed for over a year.
Rooney retired from international duty in August 2017 after 119 caps and a record 53 goals, and his England career is set to be honoured by a final, further cap against the USA at Wembley next Thursday with a substitute appearance.
The England manager remains adamant that the occasion will not devalue the shirt and also described as “strange” the divisive debate that has surrounded Rooney’s involvement, which the forward felt would not be appropriate in the friendly against Nigeria on the eve of the World Cup.
“Those discussions started over 12 months ago; I was quite happy for the tribute to be before the World Cup but Wayne didn’t want to detract from the team at that time, which everyone respected,” said Southgate. “That’s why it was put back.
“Now we have the opportunity at Wembley to pay that tribute. I’m still able to look to the future with the squad we’ve picked, but also I’ve spoken a lot to the players about the shirt, the history of the short, honouring former players.
“The players would respect Wayne’s contribution deserves the best possible send-off. I understand that’s caused a lot of debate but it’s a small way of appreciating what he’s given to his country.
“We’re a strange country in that we bemoan the fact that we haven’t achieved as much as we’d like, and then we have a player who should be held in the highest regard and we’re spending a lot of time justifying giving him that tribute.
“I’m looking forward to working with him and giving him the send-off he deserves, which isn’t always possible.
“We can assess, once everything’s finished, whether that was the right thing to do and whether we’d do it again. Over a period I’ve tried to approach things differently, and some of those decisions are a bit risky; some have paid off, some won’t. I’m completely comfortable with the situation.”
The 33-year-old Rooney had also been England captain, but in his retirement Southgate’s youthful team created a new identity with Harry Kane as its new leader.
Dismissing suggestions Rooney would be handed his long-time number-10 shirt, Southgate regardless revealed he would have “no issue” if he again wore the captain’s armband, and his belief that the national team’s setup has too often overlooked great former players.
“The last game he played, when he came on, Jordan Henderson ran over and gave him the armband as soon as he ran on the pitch,” he said. “That would depend on the circumstances and who’s out there, but I’ve no issue with that at all.
“The value of caps is very difficult to be precise on. You can come on with two minutes to go because you need a change; I’ve played when we’ve changed the whole team at half-time. This fixture is an opportunity to learn about some new players; we then have the game with Croatia which is important to us and I want to protect that squad as much as possible in the first game.
“There seems to be a general feeling that the team from ’66 maybe wasn’t recognised as might as they much have been, for certain periods. We’ve tried to involve former players as much as possible.
“If I’m a current player, the way former players are treated is very important to me, because you can see what the future holds for you.”
Naming a 28-strong squad, Southgate also handed a first call-up to Bournemouth’s in-form striker Callum Wilson, a recall to Everton defender Michael Keane, and retained Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.