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Gareth Southgate defends Wayne Rooney's England ahead of USA friendly

  /  autty

There was a moment at Wembley on Thursday when it seemed officials at the Football Association had come to their senses.

On the FA website Gareth Southgate and his latest squad of England players were listed with a portrait of each one. Next to the picture of the England manager, however, there was a blank space. It was where Wayne Rooney should have been.

But it turns out he was absent only because they don’t have a photograph of the 33-year-old former captain in the current Nike-sponsored England kit. There were blank spaces above the names of Michael Keane and Callum Wilson too, it transpired.

It meant Southgate still had to defend this ludicrous decision to recall Rooney to the England team, and to his credit he did so in much the same way he once defended the 18-yard line. He was calm and composed, very much in control.

But his performance was not without its flaws, the suggestion that a cheap cap for Rooney was no different to any player getting a few minutes in the latter stages of a friendly being one of them.

‘I played in games where we changed the whole team at half-time,’ he added.

For the players who have trained their tails off all week and then experienced the immense pride that must come with being told by the England manager you’re about to go on, that would seem harsh.

He might want to remember some of the players who actually benefited when Sven Goran Eriksson changed the entire team at half-time. It was in one such match, against Australia at Upton Park that Rooney made his international debut.

In fairness to Southgate, Eriksson did occasionally devalue the importance of friendlies with the sheer number of substitutions he would make. But there were times on Thursday when Southgate was in danger of sounding like someone who thinks these matches are pretty meaningless.

He did his best to avoid such accusations, and the selection of 28 players — including the aforementioned Wilson — certainly made it more difficult to suggest that Rooney was in ahead of a player more deserving of inclusion. Players like Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings might take a different view, of course.

With substitutions in international friendlies now limited to six, someone suggested Rooney would effectively be denying another player a cap when he comes on against the USA next week. And he will be. But with Croatia to follow three days later, Southgate says he intends to use every player available over the course of the two games.

That said, concerns remained. As suspected, this was not Southgate’s idea. It was something he has agreed to after it had been ‘brought’ to him. Indeed, he has had so little to do with the situation that he conceded he has not even spoken to Rooney.

Fortunately, Southgate is still in charge of the team and he confirmed that Rooney will not be starting the game and, for that reason, will not be wearing the No 10 shirt. And when it comes to choosing a time for Rooney to come on in the second half, Southgate said his main consideration was sending him on ‘before people start heading for the Tube’.

He did, however, say he would not object if the captain on the field next Thursday hands Rooney the armband as a mark of respect. Southgate said the discussions about Rooney had ‘started over 12 months ago’.

‘My involvement was around whether I was happy for him to play a part in the game and my answer was yes,’ he said. ‘I’m still able to look to the future with the squad that I’ve picked but I’ve talked a lot about the importance and history of the shirt and honouring former players. I think all the players would respect that 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 for his country. He has earned the right to that cap over a period of over 10 years and six major tournaments with England and to be the record goalscorer.’

He presented some decent arguments. He remarked that it’s a ‘strange country’ that takes issue with honouring a sporting hero in this manner. But he also contradicted himself. His own England debut, ‘10 minutes in a friendly against Portugal’, was ‘the most important day of my life’.

And that’s the point, because that’s how much it matters. The FA can say it’s a fitting tribute and they can even point to the 15,000 tickets they’ve sold since news emerged of Rooney’s involvement.

But on Thursday they printed off a team sheet with an asterisk next to Rooney’s name, stating that he is only involved for this one game. It looked daft, and that’s because it is daft.