8 April 2016

You Can’t Buy Experience: The Role of the Player-Mascot

Daniel Gallan

Nothing divides opinion in elite sport like the selection of a team before a major tournament. Everyone has their favourite combination of players and anyone who contradicts them is not only wrong, but an insult to the game they love. Roy Hodgson, manager of England’s national football team, has a tough choice to make: whether or not to include Wayne Rooney in his plans for European domination. It’s a tough decision to make, and one that will depend on more than purely footballing reasons.

Wayne Rooney, captain of England, celebrates scoring against Lithuania in the European Championship qualifiers at Wembley Stadium. Rooney, as instrumental as he may be, is not guranteed a starring role later this year in France. Image supplied by Action Images / Carl Recine.

Wayne Rooney, captain of England, celebrates scoring against Lithuania in the European Championship qualifiers at Wembley Stadium. Rooney, as instrumental as he may be, is not guranteed a starring role later this year in France. Image supplied by Action Images / Carl Recine.

The UEFA European Championship is getting closer and with it, the inevitable optimism from English football fans desperate for an international trophy. Supporters of the Three Lions will no doubt expect, even demand, great things from a team filled with vibrant youngsters who haven’t yet suffered the time honoured tradition of a quarterfinal penalty shoot-out defeat.

With the likes of Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge, Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and a host of other energetic prospects, this really could be the making of something truly exciting. The way this young team pressed off the ball against Germany (in a 3-2 victory) and the Netherlands (1-2 loss) off the ball, and zipped it around when in possession, showed that there has been a shift to a more dynamic style of play.

It’s a high tempo, modern approach that dispels the notion that English teams are only capable of playing route one football. Despite lacking the technical capabilities of Pep Guardiola or the gravitas of Massimiliano Allegri, Hodgson has the chance to unleash a brand of football once thought beyond an English national team.

This requires players who are both fast of feet and mind. Players who are able to strangle the opposition when they have the ball and break at speed once it’s won. Unfortunately, it is a style of play that seems beyond captain Wayne Rooney.

It’s not that Rooney is old – at 30 he is younger than both Zlatan Ibrahimović (34) and Cristiano Ronaldo (31), two players who would walk into any national team in Europe right now. But after 14 years at the highest level, and 538 senior appearances for club and country, the zest and vigour that were once hallmarks of Rooney’s game have abandoned him. The truth is Rooney is not the player he once was.

Now the tricky part: does manager Roy Hodgson select him and if so, where does he feature?

“Wayne, I repeat, is our captain”, Hodgson said defiantly ahead of the Netherlands game when quizzed about Rooney’s selection. “He has captained the team extremely well these past two years and taken us through a qualification campaign where we had complete success (10 wins from 10 matches).” That may be true, but history counts for nothing when it’s 11 vs 11 on the field.

Conventional selection policies dictate that no more than four strikers get a ticket to a major competition. Right now, on form and fitness, those strikers are Vardy (Leicester City), Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Sturridge (Liverpool) and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal). Like Rooney, all 4 of these players can play as a lone striker or as part of a front two, but what they possess that Rooney does not is enough pace to operate in one of the wider positions in a front three (though Kane is the least likely to find himself pushed wide).

Rooney could then be moved into a deeper role in the midfield. Peter Schmeichel, European Championship winner with Denmark in 1992, even went so far as to say Rooney could be the “new Paul Scholes”, referencing his passing ability and vision as key attributes for the position. Rooney is a fantastic footballer and with the ball at his feet would thrive in a deeper role. However, if England are to implement a high pressing game when defending, the Manchester United captain can’t compete with the engines of Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier, Ali (both Tottenham Hotspur), or Jordan Henderson (Liverpool).

Fans of Rooney will argue that football ability trumps all other attributes – look at icons such as Andrea Pirlo or Xavi Hernandez – but accommodating Rooney would require a shift in tactics.

What Rooney has that his contemporaries don’t is experience. Collectively, the forwards vying for his position have 67 caps and 25 goals. Rooney alone has represented his country 109 times and is England’s all-time top scorer with 51 goals. Of all the players who featured against Germany and the Netherlands, only one player has more than 50 caps – Liverpool’s James Milner with 58 – and only one player has scored more than 10 goals – Welbeck with 14.

There is a massive experience gap between Rooney and everyone else and therein lies the dilemma. If Hodgson had a clutch of experienced players who demanded a place in the side on form and ability, the Rooney conundrum may be a moot point. He doesn’t, and must now contend with a choice between selecting, or not selecting a player-mascot.

Let’s clarify something first: the term ‘player-mascot’ is not a derogatory term and should be not be viewed as such. A player-mascot is a professional elite athlete who is still competent enough to perform at the highest level, but whose selection in the squad or first team is based on more than athletic ability.

Wayne Rooney is not some punter from the local Sunday league who fancies a kick about with his mates in the England team. Nor is he a player contemplating retirement; his inclusion a sentimental allowance for the chance to ride off into the sunset. He is a fantastic player who finds himself in the unfortunate position of being the 2nd or 3rd choice player – on current form and ability – in every position he is likely to occupy.

Bobby Skinstad celebrates on the immediate right of his captain John Smit (with trophy) and just above former president Thabo Mbeki as the Springboks are crowned the 2007 Rugby World Cup champions. Skinstad, although not playing a pivotal role on the field, was no doubt instrumental to his team's success.

Bobby Skinstad celebrates on the immediate right of his captain John Smit (with trophy) and just above former president Thabo Mbeki as the Springboks are crowned the 2007 Rugby World Cup champions. Skinstad, although not playing a pivotal role on the field, was no doubt instrumental to his team's success.

Barkley recently supported his captain, emphasising his influence both on and off the field. Like his manager, Barkley seemed to convey the message that Rooney’s place in the squad has as much to do with what he offers in the form of guidance and mentorship as it does with what he can do on the field.

Experience does count for a lot and should not be taken lightly. In a previous article, Captain Thomas Chaby, a former US Navy SEAL with over 30 years’ experience, stressed the importance of having been in a situation before. It allows you to get the better of your emotions as you understand what worked before and what mistakes to avoid. 2-1 down with 5 minutes left on the clock? Not a problem if you’ve been placed in that situation before. Teammates, both young and old, look to experienced players in important moments just as managers lean heavily on experienced lieutenants when they themselves are unable to alter the game.

When South Africa won the 2007 Rugby World Cup, coach Jake White had at his disposal Bobby Skinstad, a former Springbok captain who had just previously returned from a short hiatus. Skinstad only started one match during the successful campaign (against Tonga in the group stage – a match he also captained) and only came off the bench another three times. Despite his minor role on the field, his contribution off the field and the leadership he provided have long been cited as massive contributions to the success of the side. Skinstad’s central position in the victory celebrations is perhaps more than a coincidence.

If the Springboks had lost or if they suffered a few injuries in the key loose forward area, perhaps Skinstad’s selection may have backfired. If the task of securing the ball or making over 20 tackles in the final had fallen to him, perhaps rugby history would have been written differently.

On the other hand, what if Skinstad wasn’t selected? We will never truly know how much influence he had on the squad. Investigation will no doubt lead to glowing remarks from players and coaching staff, but how would we ever measure his contribution off the field? It will forever remain anecdotal and abstract but that should not diminish its impact.

A player-mascot’s selection will always polarise opinion. The success or failure of the team vindicates those who supported his or her inclusion or exclusion and forces those who went the other way to eat humble pie. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

If England goes on to win the European Championship for the first time in their history, Rooney’s selection or exclusion will be justified. Even if he does not kick a ball, experts, players and fans will cite his off-field contribution as instrumental. If England fails, the Rooney debate will wage with renewed vigour. “They should never have picked him”, some will say if he is included; “They missed his experience”, others will offer if he isn’t.

Whatever the case, Wayne Rooney’s selection will be decided on more than his football ability. Whichever way Roy Hodgson decides to go, the knives will be out, and only a shiny new addition to England’s trophy cabinet will keep them at bay. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.

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