The great English forwards

Wayne Rooney… the best of the current lot.-GETTY IMAGES

Wayne Rooney headed his 47th England goal against feeble Lithuania at Wembley, which put him firmly and almost inevitably in position to overtake Charlton (49). With the England manager Roy Hodgson bizarrely remarking that it was more difficult now to score England goals than in Charlton’s day. By Brian Glanville.

Bobby Charlton scored 49 goals for England in 106 games. Wayne Rooney headed his 47th England goal against feeble Lithuania at Wembley, which put him firmly and almost inevitably in position to overtake Charlton. With the England manager Roy Hodgson bizarrely remarking that it was more difficult now to score England goals than in Charlton’s day.

Really? More difficult to score goals against the likes not only of Lithuania but Andorra, Liechenstein, Kazakhstan, San Marino and now heaven help us Gibraltar, who have not even got a stadium of their own. In a crazy kind of football pseudo democracy, these basket case football countries are now permitted to enter and one might almost say infest the major tournaments, even the World Cup. In Bobby Charlton's day most of them were not even thought of.

Now and again there may be a splendid surprise. Tiny San Marino is no more than what the Italians call a mattress team, yet I shall never forget sitting in the Press Box in Bologna in 1993 and in the very first minute of the game watching a pitifully inept attempted back pass by the England left back Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce, instantly snapped up by the San Marino centre forward who ran on easily to score. At which the whole Press box, composed almost entirely of English journalists, exploded in uncontrollable laughter. England of course went on to score seven themselves but it is the San Marino goal which has stayed hilariously in the memory. Though hardly sufficient to justify their regular participation in major tournaments.

But if the World Cup finals are surely the ultimate criterion, let us compare Wayne Rooney’s record with Charlton’s, which might have been even more impressive had he not been so controversially excluded from the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden. They came just a few months after Bobby had miraculously survived the horrific Munich air crash in which so many Manchester United players and many other passengers perished. His United colleagues, left back Roger Byrne, powerful young left half Duncan Edwards and centre forward Tommy Taylor, all died. But somehow, almost miraculously, Bobby was flung out of the plane to nearby safety still strapped onto his seat.

Traumatising enough, you might think and indeed it seems to have taken him years to come to terms with the horrors. And it therefore wasn’t surprising that he, like most of the England team thrashed 5-0 by Yugoslavia in Belgrade en route to Sweden, should have been ineffectual.

Bobby Charlton... still considered England's all-time best.-GETTY IMAGES

What seemed absurd was that in Sweden, he never played, to public outcry, in a game, while in the fatal play off against the Soviets in Gothenburg, England played two debutants in Peter Brabrook and Peter Broadbent; and lost.

Bobby did play in the subsequent 1962 World Cup in Chile but not in his original position of inside forward but at outside left where he showed great natural gifts as a winger, body swerve, neat control, a fine left-footed show with which he scored a goal against Argentina. Curiously enough he was a natural right-footed player, who had worked hard and successfully on his left.

When it came to the 1966 World Cup and Wembley, Alf Ramsey had turned Bobby into a deep-lying centre forward. He was not a naturally creative player but his ability to beat a man and come forward with the ball was always a potential weapon while his finishing with either foot was dynamic. He scored an exceptional goal from way out on the right against Mexico just as the crowd was chanting, “Give us a goal!” and surpassed himself in a memorable semifinal against Portugal when he coolly scored both the England goals in a narrow victory.

Where Rooney has the advantage of him is in the air. Rooney is a formidable header of the ball, Charlton's headed goals were rare. Though memorable was the one at Wembley again, which he back-headed in the European Cup final for Manchester United against Benfica. Yet when it comes to World Cups, Rooney’s record is a mediocre one. He did score against Uruguay in Brazil last year, in a 2-1 defeat of a mediocre England team. Four years earlier, in South Africa, he seemed jaded and disaffected, after one mediocre performance in a drab England team shouting at the England fans who were jeering the team. While in the 2006 World Cup playing in Gelsenkirchen against Portugal, admittedly not fully fit, he was sent off for a petulant foul. Indeed his only salient success in an international tournament came in 2004 in the European finals, where in Portugal he showed irresistible flair and form. England arguably could have won the tournament had he not been kicked out of the game against Portugal in Lisbon.

But if World Cups be the ultimate criterion, what of the claims of Gary Lineker with 48 goals in 80 games, half a dozen in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which made him top scorer in the tournament? There might have been still more goals had the manager, Graham Taylor, not so contentiously substituted him during England’s defeat by Sweden in Stockholm in the European Championship finals of 1982. Memorable too were the goals he scored against Spain in Madrid in 1987.

Nat Lofthouse would surely have scored more than his remarkable 30 goals in 33 games for England had he not been absurdly omitted from the 1958 squad, having just scored both Bolton goals in their FA Cup final win against Manchester United. Incredibly, England took only 20 players to the Swedish finals when they were entitled to 22. And soon after that World Cup, where Russia eliminated England, Lofthouse, recalled belatedly to the team terrorised the Russian defenders in an easy win over the side which had eliminated England in Sweden.

Rooney’s scoring record, then, is an undoubtedly impressive one, but it surely does not bear comparison with those of Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker. Neither of whom ever came close to being sent off as Rooney twice has been when playing for England. Jimmy Greaves? 45 goals in just 57 games but he failed in the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile and was excluded in 1966 by Alf Ramsey, who never saw eye to eye with him.