His England teammates fell by the wayside but Rooney continues to thrive
Wayne Rooney's century of England caps is a story of unfulfilled, wasted ability, though not perhaps in the fashion some suggest it. Rooney never became the world-beater many believed he could be when he made his England debut, but those he served alongside are the true casualties of time.
A blowy, rainy night at Upton Park on Feb. 12, 2003 may feel fresh in the mind but only Rooney remains of the 22 -- almost a World Cup squad -- who played and lost for Sven Goran Eriksson in a friendly against Australia. When Frank Lampard retired from international football in August, the final cord was cut. Rooney, then 17, is now the remainder -- a senior international and the national captain. At 29, his contemporaries are already lost to the game. Only six still play professional football.
Rooney's half-time arrival was the highlight of a 3-1 defeat against Australia. Though he had the build of a fully-grown man, he still ran as if he were on a playground, immaturity revealing itself in his head-down running, though a gossamer creative touch was evidenced by his part in Francis Jeffers' consolation goal.
On a night of national embarrassment in losing for the first time to the Socceroos, it was Rooney, Jeffers and Jermaine Jenas who were hailed as the players to one day replace a "golden generation" of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen. Yet only Rooney of the second-half subs, of which there were 11, would achieve such an end. The last of this second XI to play alongside Rooney for England was Ledley King at the 2010 World Cup.
Lampard and Ashley Cole outlasted them to become centurions, too. Rio Ferdinand sees out his final season at Queens Park Rangers. Like Wes Brown at Sunderland and Paul Konchesky at Leicester, he battles relegation.
But Jeffers, from the same Croxteth district of Liverpool, was a Rooney prototype. "He's from the same area as I am, he went to the same school and that made it a little bit easier for me," Rooney said this week. When the pair took the field together, they shared a shy embrace in the centre circle.
Having similarly made his Everton debut at 16, Jeffers now admits that by the time of his international debut at 22, his career was already on its downward spiral. Upton Park was his sole cap. He had been signed by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for 10 million pounds in the summer of 2001, as the first striker to be given the sobriquet "fox in the box" having impressed at Everton.
Jeffers is now recalled as one of Wenger's greatest follies. Just as the Gunners were the pre-eminent force in the English game at the time, Jeffers was "partying, living life and easing off in training because I always thought I wouldn't play Saturday anyway." He never struck the partnership that Wenger envisaged with Thierry Henry.
"Now I look back with a lot of regrets," Jeffers told the Independent. "That is where I should have been putting it in more. Arsene Wenger gave me a fair crack of the whip. I haven't got a bad word to say about him."
While Jeffers fell victim to temptations that have at times threatened Rooney's progress, the latter has made it so far through the backing of a stable family environment, and being under the control of Sir Alex Ferguson and agent Paul Stretford, who together deserve credit for their careful management of a talent with an ability to turn rogue and self-destruct. They have not allowed him to fail like those others did, though an innate talent has also ballasted him against ruin.
The Upton Park teamsheet reveals the deleterious effect that injuries had on so many of Rooney's contemporaries. Jenas -- another youngster that night and another jewel amid the gloom -- is battling back from a cruciate rupture suffered in April 2014, during the final weeks of his QPR contract.
"I think Jenas did very well, absolutely," Eriksson said in 2003. "He has a football brain. He plays simple. He's stronger than he looks and is very mature for a 19-year-old."
At 31, Jenas has become a television pundit, but looks far too young to be part of football's equivalent of the end-of-the-pier show. It does not seem long since the late Sir Bobby Robson's eyes used to mist at the potential that "JJ" possessed.
Teammates that night in King and Owen Hargreaves have already had to admit defeat to their injuries, as has Kieron Dyer, Jenas' ill-starred Newcastle teammate who Rooney replaced at half-time. Michael Owen was Rooney's predecessor in England prodigy and would become his partner but his international career was done by his own 29th birthday, as muscular problems robbed him of his speed. Rooney equalled Owen's 40 international goals when scoring against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup. Sir Bobby Charlton's 49 is within sight.
Such comparative reminiscence suggests a group of players who never achieved what was expected of them, neither individually nor as a team; national regrets for a frittered generation. "I had a decent career," said Jeffers, who retired last year at Accrington Stanley after playing under the management of James Beattie, the striker he replaced that east London evening. It should have been so much better.
During the past 11 years, Rooney's first England teammates were lost to the nation. Though he was youngest of them all that night at Upton Park, his continuing longevity is a mark of a special, enduring talent.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.