LONDON - Gareth Southgate has told his England players it is time to step out from Wayne Rooney’s shadow. The England manager is coming to terms with Rooney’s sudden decision to quit international football this week.
Southgate confirmed on Thursday that he was about to offer the 31-year-old a place in the squad for qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia when England’s record goalscorer dropped his bombshell. Now Southgate has called on his other senior players to fill the void.
"Wayne’s been somebody it may have been easy to hide behind, because he’s the one who has carried that burden. I think that’s been unfair on him. The others have not had to carry the responsibility that Wayne has carried, certainly since Steven Gerrard retired," Southgate said.
"But now others have to grasp that initiative and responsibility. If we are going to be an outstanding team then you need players who are going to step up in the big moments, step up in games. Now everybody has the chance to take the mantle. It’s not concern, it’s opportunity."
Southgate revealed that discussions are taking place at the FA about how best to mark Rooney’s retirement. A game in his honour seems unlikely but other options are on the table.
"A match has never been done before and we have obviously had World Cup winners retire before," he said. "So other people have to make the decision but we should be recognising his career with England and showing appreciation.
"I know already there is discussion around that and about how we may keep him involved with England, just as we are talking to Frank Lampard and Steven and others, as there is value to that experience being passed on."
Having decided to recall Rooney after dropping him last season, Southgate hinted that the Everton striker probably would not have made the starting XI for the World Cup qualifiers. Equally, he has not totally closed the door on the former Manchester United player if he changes his mind.
"Could I see him definitely starting? No, I couldn’t give that guarantee. But do I see the value of a senior player and what he may add in terms of experience and developing some of the other players? Definitely," Southgate said.
"I was quite comfortable whichever way the conversation went but was also prepared to involve him in the next two matches. In one way there’s a tinge of sadness because I would have liked to have managed Wayne at his peak.
"The flip-side of that is that I have exciting young players who need nurturing and need the opportunity, and I have a chance to make a difference with them."
Southgate is likely to ask Harry Kane to captain the side in the next two games but won’t commit to a long-term skipper.
"The more important thing is that the culture around the team is of leaders, people prepared to take responsibility. You need people who are prepared to influence others in a positive way and you can’t have just one guy leading that," he said.
"I captained every club I was at and at times that was exhausting because I felt there wasn’t enough shared responsibility at times. I go back to England when they won the Rugby World Cup.
"Yes, Martin Johnson was the captain but that could have been Lawrence Dallaglio, it could have been Will Greenwood, Matt Dawson...there were any number of players in that team who were strong personalities and we need a team of strong personalities."
Southgate rejected claims that Rooney’s status at international level is diminished by the fact he didn’t win anything with England.
"I guess people have that debate about Lionel Messi, because he has not won a World Cup," said Southgate. "We are talking about that level of player. I think we are talking about greats within their own country.
"We cannot compare ourselves to Brazilians or Germans, but Wayne has done pretty much everything else. If that (success) hasn’t been the case with England, I think that’s been more a failing of the team than him as an individual.
‘"He’s consistently scored, consistently carried the fight, consistently put himself there, even under the most intense scrutiny and criticism. He is our record goalscorer, more than Sir Bobby Charlton, more than Gary Lineker. How is Gary viewed? How is John Barnes viewed? In my eyes they are legends of the English game, for many different reasons. And I think Wayne is in that category."