Wayne Rooney will start for England tonight, whether anyone wants him to or not.
The captain and the all-time leading scorer will face a nemesis that has haunted him throughout his career; major international tournaments.
He will do so with the collective weight of a nation that thinks someone else should be playing instead and for once he will enter a tournament without expectation.
No one is imagining that Rooney is going to set these European Championships alight.
Opinion on Wayne Rooney has always been divisive, his career is a complete paradox. He is both exceptional and mediocre. He is a great modern player or yet another example of an over hyped English media creation. He is hugely successful and a failure.
He is one of the most marketable faces on the planet yet lampooned for his stocky physique and dodgy wig.
Simon Kuper wrote of Rooney in his collection of interviews, The Football Men, that “the country’s need for him often segues into dependence. Among the many groups who want their piece of him, England’s fans often appear the most desperate.”
That is no longer the case.
Let’s start with his previous tournaments. Six goals in 14 games belie the disappointment accompanied by poor England teams performing badly
Other big names such as Stephen Gerrard or John Terry have seriously underperformed at summer tournaments but Rooney was supposed to transcend all that.
When he exploded onto the scene at Everton he was set to blow through all the anguish, all the crippling expectancy that follows the English national team like a weeping Paul Gascoigne-shaped ghost.
Despite his unimpressive tournament form as ever with Rooney’s career there are asterisks applied.
His tournaments in 2006 and 2010 were his poorest, the two tournaments he didn’t register a single goal at, and came on the back of season ending injuries.
Sir Alex Ferguson was furious with Sven Goran Eriksson for taking the striker to Germany in 2006 despite the fact that he was recovering from a broken foot.
2010 should have been his year to finally illuminate a World Cup but this time it was Ferguson’s decision to rush Rooney back from an ankle ligament injury that saw a season in which he had scored 33 goals by late March peter out.
The delirious level of pressure placed on Rooney during the 2010 competition is best exemplified by Dominic Fifield of The Guardian writing, in his post mortem of England’s embarrassing exit:
The hope was that the Manchester United forward would make such an impact in South Africa as to draw comparisons with Pelé in 1970 or Diego Maradona in 1986.
Basically, failure to perform like two of the best players of all time at their peak means failure. Oh, and do it ten weeks after suffering a severely sprained ankle while you’re at it.
The questioning of Rooney’s ability is not a new phenomenon. Despite five league winners medals, two League Cups, a FA Cup and a Champions League win, Rooney was never the true “Main Man” during those successes.
From 2007 to 2009, the team was rightly centered on Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2011, Dimitar Berbatov won the Golden Boot as United won the Premier League and in 2013, Robin Van Persie carried the team on his back for much of the season.
Even now after outlasting these superstars he is no longer able to command alpha male status.
The explosive debut season of new young superstar Anthony Martial brought with it both excitement and a tinge of sadness.
How many United fans were reminded at once of Rooney’s own bombastic arrival to Old Trafford after the most recent example of Martial’s fearless running?
The sound of seats clattering as fans stood up now accompanies the young Frenchman like it used to with Rooney, supporters dizzy with anticipation of what this man-child built like a bricklayer ballerina would do next.
Rooney’s best seasons came in 2009/10 and 2011/12 when scored 34 goals in both; he was clearly the focal point during these periods and prospered.
However, during this time the team picked up a solitary League Cup trophy. It is difficult to decipher whether this is an anomaly or proof that a team built around Wayne Rooney will not win trophies.
At this point in his career Rooney may not be up to the role of main man in a successful team.
The notion that he is the lovechild of Pele and Terry Butcher belies his true ability, he is an excellent finisher with the occasional run of form that means he flirts with the confusing term world class.
Despite often being described as a streaky forward, scoring in bursts but without much consistency, his career is one of remarkable consistency.
His league record for United is a shade under one goal for every two games. His combined goals and assists record in the Premier League is 264 in 340 games, a remarkable return for a player who spent four of those seasons as a teenager.
His England record is 52 in 111, and some of them weren’t penalties against San Marino.
The odd thing about Rooney’s career is that were it to end tomorrow, he would be viewed as something of a disappointment.
Despite the many accolades and being destined to become England and Manchester United’s all time leading scorer, he has somehow never lived up to his potential.
He will never be embraced as a club legend like Best, Charlton or his contemporary, Ronaldo. Never will he be celebrated as a national treasure like Bobby Moore or Gary Lineker.
The “bad” Wayne appears every so often, the so often perfect first touch appears gone, chances are spurned or non-existent and an ugly, Sunday league scissor tackle is mere seconds away.
Often these clearly malevolent acts of serious foul play are accompanied by a chortle the commentator who wonders “Well, what would he be if you took that out of his game?”.
As asinine as that question sounds, it may hit on a good point. Rooney’s recent poor performances have not led to the red mist descending.
It could be that becoming a father and a captain has matured the often petulant boy we saw early in his career.
Indeed, Chris Smalling has spoken of the leadership Rooney has shown since being awarded the armband and how younger members of the squad follow his example in training.
Perhaps the spark is gone, but it could also be that Rooney is tired. He certainly looks it.
He is in the unenviable position of having played over 600 professional games before he turned 30. Maybe there’s no more red mist to fall or no more vitriol to spit at referees.
Rooney’s career arc illustrates the cannibalistic nature of modern media and sports, built up to be the “White Pele”, then being knocked down for being just very good.
As he ages and inevitably tails off we may see a greater appreciation for his talent.
Although not an all-time great, he is a gifted player who has delivered some of the most memorable footballing moments of the 21st century and that should be good enough.