Don't make me wing it, Fabio! Rooney pleads to be given the middle ground
Wayne Rooney has just been explaining why he so enjoys being away with England. It is the chance to perform the role to which he considers himself best suited, playing in the middle and escaping the left wing he too often occupies for Manchester United. There, he says, he can exert more influence; score more goals. 'I've always said that's my best position,' he declares, hoping his words will register with a certain Scot on the other side of Europe. But then comes the training session. Under the guidance of the Italian manager who was quick to realise his importance to the England team, it is a practice match at the sun-drenched Dynamo Stadium. Fabio Capello organises the two teams. Theo Walcott on the right, Emile Heskey in the centre, Rooney, again, on the left. Credit to Rooney for not sulking and instead emerging as the star of the show in front of children from an inner-city orphanage. First comes a bumptiously-executed penalty. Then a jinking run that takes him past two players before Robert Green is beaten again. When it comes to tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan, Rooney will probably be more satisfied with the job Capello entrusts him with. The desire to see him combine effectively with Steven Gerrard is expected to result in the two of them being told to dovetail behind Heskey. But you can sense the frustration in Rooney's words. Not least when it comes to United and, more specifically, last week's Champions League final in Rome. 'It's the manager's choice but I've always said my best position is playing up front,' says Rooney. 'Obviously I haven't played that position for a while for United. But the position I play for England is the one I like playing most.' A year after receiving public assurances from Sir Alex Ferguson that he would be employed in a more central role, not much has changed. Not even after Ferguson began to have his doubts about Dimitar Berbatov and dropped the Bulgarian for the more important games towards the end of the season. Rather than turn to Rooney, Ferguson instead thought it more prudent to put Cristiano Ronaldo in the centre, for the most part because he could rely more on Rooney to do the hard running when United did not have the ball. In fairness to Ferguson, until they met Barcelona it worked rather well, particularly at Arsenal for the second leg of their Champions League semi-final. Ronaldo and Rooney performed brilliantly, the sheer quality of their football rendering any argument about specific roles an irrelevance. Only it does remain relevant to Rooney when he would like more opportunities to demonstrate why he is considered England's finest player and one of the stars of the Barclays Premier League. When, for all the success he has enjoyed since moving from Everton to Old Trafford, he probably feels not just under-valued but under-rated. 'When you're out on the left, you have responsibilities to get back and defend a bit more down that flank,' Rooney explains. 'Sometimes, that does take away a bit of energy from your attacking. But, with England, you can get your rest at times by swapping with Steven. That allows you to get forward too.' And score goals. Something he has done with impressive frequency in this World Cup qualifying campaign five so far and something he would like to do in the future too. In his 50 international appearances he has scored 21 goals and has his sights on Sir Bobby Charlton's record mark of 49. 'It's a team game and I love playing for the team,' he says. 'I've done that for many years. But as a forward player you need to be selfish if you're going to score the goals you want. Maybe I do need to be more selfish if I'm going to be playing in the role I want to be playing. 'I'd love to be the leading England goalscorer. I'm still a long way away, but it's something I've got in my mind and I'd feel privileged to do it. 'I think I've improved as an England player. I did quite well in my first few games for England but in the last year the experience I've had with United, playing in the Champions League, has started to show. Hopefully I can continue that form. 'I'm scoring goals now because I'm enjoying playing for England a lot more. It's been a bit frustrating in previous years but, at this moment, I'm enjoying it more than ever. 'In the past I don't think we were as good as we all thought. There were expectations and we didn't deliver. That was the frustrating bit. 'It's more satisfying now because of how we're playing, and the fact we're winning. You always enjoy that. In the past we've gone into tournaments saying we've got to win this or that and didn't get close. We're aware of that. We know what work we need to do. If we can prepare right and work hard, hopefully we'll do well.' After the bitter experience of Rome and that encounter with the brilliant Barcelona, Rooney shares the view that Spain now represent the benchmark. 'They're the best team in the world at the minute and it'll be difficult to beat them,' he says. 'If you try and play football against them, they'll destroy you because they're the masters of that kind of football. But if we can defend, stay solid, and hit them on the counter-attack they could be beaten.' So long as Rooney is in the middle.