Wayne Rooney believes he will go into the European Championship as strong as he has ever been, mentally and physically, before a major tournament as he prepares for the “biggest test” of a 13-year international career.
The Manchester United forward, at 30, is the elder statesmen of the youngest squad at the finals – and the most youthful England have taken to a tournament since the 1958 World Cup – and is aware the captaincy will bring with it extra responsibility in France. While he does not feel the need to protect the younger players in the 23-man party, he will seek to set an example around the setup, and offer reassurance on the pitch to ensure those emerging talents feel at ease.
“You never know how you’re going to take to the captaincy,” said England’s record goalscorer, who will earn his 111th cap against Portugal on Thursday in the team’s sendoff at Wembley as he seeks to add to his tally of 52 goals. “I remember Roy asking me if I wanted to lead the team [after the disappointing 2014 World Cup campaign] and I had no hesitation in saying I did want to. And it’s gone well: we were unbeaten in qualification and I’ve scored a lot of goals – but now is the big test, the biggest test, going into a tournament.
“Leading the team into a major finals is a huge honour and a big moment for myself that I don’t take lightly. I need to be a good example to the other players. I don’t think I have to look after the younger players but if I can set the right example around the hotel or out on the training pitch, then they will see that. A lot of these players are going to their first tournament and won’t know what to expect. It is different, so if I can try to give them a bit of insight into that, I will do.
“It’s a young squad but it’s got a lot of quality. A lot of the players who are in this squad have been put into their league teams, taken their chance and deserve their place. I always believe I was fortunate to benefit from being put in as a 17-year-old and given a chance, which I took. Now I am excited and proud to lead these players into the tournament, and I really believe we’ve got a good enough squad to do well.”
Rooney has his own motivation to impress. Since his eye-catching arrival on the stage at Euro 2004, his impact in tournaments has too often been frustrated either by fitness issues or suspension. Yet, having recovered from the knee problem that ruled him out for two months up to mid-April, he goes into the championship refreshed and, increasingly, in form.
“I feel good,” he added. “I had an injury towards the end of the season but came back with still quite a few games to play. I did as well as I could do and I haven’t felt [the knee] at all since coming back. I’ve had no injury problems at all. It’s certainly as good as I’ve felt going into a tournament and that’s largely because I’m injury-free. I’ve had little concerns and niggles going into previous tournaments playing on my mind but I have no concerns about that now. Physically, I feel fine. Mentally, I’m in a good place.
“I want to be successful and try to win a trophy. We all hope but I think I’ve always said I’m proud to play for my country. It’s a huge honour to do so. To lead the team into a tournament is a big moment for myself and one I don’t take lightly. I’m hugely honoured to do that and I have confidence in myself and the team that we can do well. It will be a difficult tournament but we feel we have the squad of players to be up there among the top teams in Europe.”