Wayne Rooney will make his final farewell as England’s greatest ever goalscorer in a friendly against the United States on Thursday but is excited at what a young squad can achieve under “fearless” coach Gareth Southgate in the years to come.
Rooney, 33, made the last of his 119 international appearances midway through England’s World Cup qualifying campaign two years ago.
In contrast to his prime when a “golden generation” disappointed at major tournaments and never made it beyond the quarter-finals, Southgate’s charges surpassed expectations by making it to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in 28 years in Russia.
“Fearless,” said Rooney when asked what set Southgate apart from the other five England managers he played under. “Because a lot of the other managers didn’t really give the youth the opportunity to express themselves and come into the team and have an impact.”
Rooney insisted he has no regrets on retiring from international football a year before the World Cup, but admitted even he was surprised at how quickly Southgate’s squad matured into contenders to be world champions.
“I saw over two years ago the talent we had with the young players,” he added. “I believed those players, maybe not in the World Cup but the one after that would be good enough to have a go at it. They proved me wrong by doing so well in this World Cup.”
England carried on the momentum from their World Cup campaign by inflicting Spain’s first competitive defeat on home soil for 15 years in a thrilling 3-2 victory in Seville last month.
Should Luis Enrique’s men fail to bounce back with a victory in Croatia on Thursday, England will have the chance to progress to the inaugural Nations League semi-finals by beating the Croats at Wembley on Sunday.
However, the long-term target remains success at Euro 2020 with the extra incentive of the semi-finals and final to be played at Wembley.
“Myself along with all you guys (media) are of the opinion the squad is growing, getting better. I’m excited to see them in the next tournament,” added Rooney.
While the former Everton and Manchester United striker brings down the curtain on his England career, Southgate has the chance to test some of those at the end of their international career against the States.
Jadon Sancho, 18, is in line for his first start after starring in Borussia Dortmund’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich on Saturday.
Rooney himself burst onto the international scene as an 18-year-old at Euro 2004 but admitted he didn’t always enjoy his England career as he should have after that tournament given the burden of expectation to perform he shouldered.
“When you’re in that mode you don’t want to admit there is pressure to perform. I’ve stepped back from that now and can analyze that there was that pressure,” he added.
“Having that makes you try too hard and makes you a bit too anxious, so you don’t enjoy it as much as you should. You play your best football and best performances when you’re enjoying playing and winning.”
And Rooney is confident this generation can succeed where he failed in winning England’s first major trophy since 1966 if they maintain the free spirit they showed in the summer.
“Enjoy it. It’s a huge honor in your career. Probably the best honor you can have,” said when asked to give advice to the current squad.
“It won’t always be good, every tournament or every game, but as long as you keep trying to learn and make sure you’re one of the players who can try and bring a trophy back to England, which is long overdue.”