In the week leading up to this game, Wayne Rooney could have been forgiven for wondering whether it was worth all the hassle.
His patience was nothing short of remarkable as he indulged endless stony-faced questions about the merits of his England farewell. Did he deserve it? Had he deprived a younger player of a valuable opportunity? Would it devalue that most precious commodity in all the world, an England senior cap?
The debate was as utterly inevitable as it was tedious. Rooney might have forgotten as he enjoyed five months of blissful anonymity in Washington, but back home simply talking about him remains an industry all its own. It is, after all, the price to be paid for being England’s talisman for more than a decade.
In the end, Rooney’s 120th and final England match was all about him — and yet it also really wasn’t.
Amid the huge cheers that greeted his prematch entrance Thursday, his every appearance on the big screens while among the substitutes and his every touch of the ball when he came on, there was also evidence everywhere of how far England have moved beyond Rooney, and perhaps also the talisman culture he represents.
Gareth Southgate’s starting XI against the U.S. boasted a total of 94 England caps compared to Rooney’s 119. Of the team, only Jordan Pickford, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were key figures at the World Cup, and seven of the remaining eight had made five international appearances or fewer. Yet there were no signs of inexperience on the pitch, only the fearlessness of youth allied to the confidence fostered by the clear footballing identity Southgate has brought to England.
Lingard and Borussia Dortmund sensation Jadon Sancho buzzed brightly as they switched flanks in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, while Alli, operating as the No. 10, enjoyed his most influential game in recent memory. Behind them, Harry Winks brought the poise and passing so badly lacking at key moments in Russia.
England overloaded a limited U.S. — surprisingly ranked as high as No. 23 by FIFA despite their World Cup qualification failure — on the flanks and carved them open at will, eventually beating Brad Guzan twice within the space of 104 seconds thanks to Lingard and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The second goal in particular felt like a tantalising glimpse into England’s next decade as Sancho — who regularly brought “oohs” and “aahs” out of the Wembley crowd with his dribbling and close control — cleverly disguised a sharp pass to Alexander-Arnold to lash in. A first international assist, a first international goal.
As he watched it all from the sidelines, it was tempting to wonder whether Rooney might be reflecting ruefully on the fact that he never had the privilege of playing in an England team as cohesive and convincing as this. When he burst through Swiss and Croatian defenders as an 18-year-old at Euro 2004, it was invariably the result of spectacular individual ability; when Sancho darted into dangerous areas with the ball here, he was generally racing onto a precise pass from a teammate.
Rooney got his moment in the second half, and England’s dominance ensured he was introduced long before the 68,155 supporters in attendance dashed for the train home. When he did enter to a standing ovation in the 58th minute, it felt significant that he stationed himself on the left wing — a sign of his superfluousness to Southgate’s plans as well as a reminder of the positional sacrifices that defined much of his career.
Only then did proceedings take on more of a testimonial feel. Rooney looked embarrassed when a pitch invader evaded security and ran on to embrace him, but he also indulged his desire for one final England goal by parking himself up front for the final 20 minutes as his teammates desperately tried to force-feed him the ball. Guzan would not oblige the fairy tale.
What felt like the only attack not involving Rooney in the final half-hour led to England’s third goal, as Callum Wilson opened his international account with a smart near-post finish from Fabian Delph’s cross. It was not the most popular plot line, but it is one that carries far more significance for Southgate’s attacking options in the matches ahead that matter.
Rooney wore a rueful smile at the final whistle, but carried the air of a man who, despite all the attention, despite the exhausting public inquest, despite the crippling international burden he bore for 12 years, appreciated the chance to write his own England ending.
His part in this story is over, but Southgate can be more confident than ever that his England team has encouraging depth and serious upward momentum. Even more promisingly, the team he has built will take on Croatia at Wembley on Sunday with their hopes resting on much more than one man.