As England prepare for a vital World Cup qualifying doubleheader, thoughts will inevitably turn to the man who, for many, has to be most capable of ensuring the nation progresses unscathed: Wayne Rooney.
The Manchester United forward will play a vital role for his nation as they bid to beat both Montenegro and Poland to win themselves a place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Anything less than six points and England will be left hoping for other results to go their way in order to avoid a playoff, otherwise it's outright elimination.
Rooney has so far enjoyed a very up-and-down career with England, which has spanned 84 caps and 36 goals. Here we take a look at the highs and lows of his international career, which still has several more chapters left to run.
At age 27, he's almost certain to surpass a century of caps in due course, and he still stands a chance of breaking the all-time England scoring record—though he'll have to pick up his scoring rate a little for that to happen.
In the Beginning
Rooney made his international debut at age 17 against Australia in 2003, having already made an impact in the Premier League.
Barely 15 months later, he was on England's Euro 2004 squad—already with five international goals to his name by that point. His maiden strike came against Macedonia in a qualifier, while further efforts against Liechtenstein, Denmark and Iceland followed.
Aged just 18, he was the youngest player in England's tournament squad and was handed the No. 9 shirt, pairing Michael Owen up front having barely won a dozen caps.
Rooney's impact on the tournament was, initially, electric.
He raced the length of France's half of the pitch to dramatically win a penalty, put Switzerland to the sword with two fantastic goals and added another brace against Croatia, ending the group stage with four goals and a much-improved reputation.
It wasn't to last, though, as Rooney lasted less than half an hour of the quarterfinal against Portugal before injury struck.
His tournament was over, and a little under two hours later, so was England's as they crashed out on penalties.
A Disappointing World Cup
Following his blistering start to life as an England international, Rooney endured perhaps his worst run of form, especially in front of goal.
He didn't score for England after Euro 2004 for more than a year, and didn't net in a competitive match for nigh on three-and-a-half years. His next strike of note actually came in October 2007 in a qualifying match for the next European Championships.
Before all that, though, there was the 2006 World Cup to aspire to do well in.
England topped their qualification group, winning eight games out of 10 and scoring 17 goals in the process, but Rooney was not amongst them, as the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen did the damage regularly.
An injury to Rooney's foot shortly before the World Cup started didn't bode well for the tournament, and he was never really fit during it. The worst was yet to come as Rooney was sent off for allegedly stamping on Ricardo Carvalho before England, yet again, exited on penalties to Portugal at the quarterfinal stage.
Umbrellas and All That Nonsense
For Euro 2008, England didn't have to worry about penalties—they never made it to the finals.
A Rooney goal in Moscow wasn't enough to avoid defeat against Russia, and he was out injured with ankle trouble as a Steve McClaren-led England crashed to a 3-2 defeat against Croatia, leaving them third in the group at the end of 10 matches.
The qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup were Rooney's most prolific period as an England forward to date.
Rooney walloped in nine goals during England's 10 games—more than a quarter of the team's goals—as well as another two goals in friendlies during that time. All told, he went from 14 international goals to 25 in the space of one day in under a year.
He was handed the captain's armband against Brazil in the buildup to the World Cup, with England fielding a mixed side featuring mainly players who were not regulars in the starting lineup. Rooney, of course, was one of the few exceptions.
The team breezed through qualification, topping the group by some six points, but, once more, that was to be the highlight.
The 2010 World Cup itself was a desperately poor one for England, who managed just two goals and one win in three group stage games against mediocre opposition. Rooney started all three games, but he failed to score and berated the national team's support for booing the players after a dour 0-0 draw with Algeria.
Facing Germany in the knockout stages was meant to be a wake-up call but turned out to be anything of the sort, as Rooney and co. were sent home with their bums firmly smacked after a 4-1 defeat.
Another campaign without a goal for the United forward, who by this time hadn't scored a goal at a major tournament since his efforts at Euro 2004 as a teenager.
Another Tournament, Another Disappointment
Rooney found the goal trail harder to come by in qualification for Euro 2012, but more importantly was the red card he received in the final match.
It meant that, after a lengthy suspension had been appealed against, he still missed the opening two group stage matches in Poland and Ukraine.
He wasn't fit, sharp or looking anything like the player who had just scored 27 goals in the Premier League season for his club, but he did finally add to his tournament goal tally, a close-range tap-in to win the match against Ukraine and ensure England's spot at the top of the group.
Once again, seemingly obvious and inevitable, penalties were to prove England's undoing in the knockout stages. A 0-0 draw against Italy in the quarterfinals was reduced to spot-kicks, with Rooney netting his effort before Ashley Young and Ashley Cole missed theirs.
World Cup Qualifiers—and the 2014 Finals?
And now to the present day.
Rooney has added five more international goals in this qualifying campaign, three against San Marino, one against Poland and one in Montenegro.
The forward has had notable milestones over the past year or so, including goals in two separate matches against Brazil, one in the Maracana, as well as surpassing the 30-goal barrier for his nation.
His 36 strikes have taken him to fifth in the all-time list for his country, with Michael Owen's 40-goal haul being the next target in his sights.
Before that, though, his only aim right now will be to help overcome Poland and Montenegro, taking six points in the next week to ensure he gets another crack at a World Cup. He'll be in his 30s by the time the next one rolls around, and there's never any guarantee that a player will still be in favour that far into the future.
Rooney's England career has certainly had highlights, but there are notable omissions too, even excluding the obvious miss of a trophy.
Despite featuring in four major tournaments so far, he has yet to score a goal in the knockout stages at either World Cup or Euros, and he has never scored a competitive goal against genuinely top quality opposition.
Yes, friendly strikes have come against Brazil, Argentina and Holland, but facing the likes of those nations—or Germany, Italy, Spain and so on—in a competitive, meaningful environment is what memorable international football must be all about. Blame the tactics, the manager, the injuries or the incapacity of England's teams to play possession football, but a goal against a top-class nation is missing from Rooney's international record books.
Beat Poland and Montenegro, and just maybe he'll get the opportunity to rectify that in Brazil next summer.
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