With Lithuania the latest victims, England skipper Wayne Rooney is closing in on Sir Bobby Charlton's goal tallies for both club and country – but which player's achievements are most impressive for England? Matt Allen investigates...
These are landmark days for Wayne Rooney. Now in his 10th year at Manchester United and still seemingly an integral part of Louis van Gaal's attacking corps at Old Trafford, the Croxteth-born 'street-baller' is now England captain. Yet there has been much discussion about his career in recent weeks, from both media and supporters alike.
Many national reporters have analysed his achievements so far and, almost as importantly, considered whether the player has lived up to his potential. Meanwhile, Red Devils fans continue to witness the good and the bad of his game – such as in autumn when a goal against West Ham was promptly followed by a red card for a frustrated swing of a boot at Stewart Downing in the same match.
Some of this debate has even come from Rooney himself. When Jonathan Northcroft of The Telegraph asked him flat-out whether he'd matched the status that accompanied his spectacular emergence in 2002, the striker, who turned 29 in October, replied: "I still believe I can get better as a footballer. In the next three to five years you will see me as a different player.
"The next two or three could be the best years of my career. I’m at a stage, especially after playing at this club for 10 years, where I’ve picked up a lot about the game. I’ve learnt. I now know exactly what I want to do on the pitch and I’m fit and ready to do it."
Interestingly there is an awareness of age and the heights to which he can operate in his next phase. In the same interview, Rooney spoke of Alan Shearer and how, with his legs slowing and his career reaching the flushes of autumn, the former England talisman still managed 150 goals after his 29th birthday.
If Rooney was to match that achievement, there would be some serious rewriting of the record books. For starters, Sir Bobby Charlton's Manchester United goalscoring mark of 249 is within range – Rooney is only 20 behind – but it's on the international stage where he can really make his mark. For England, Sir Bobby scored 49 goals in 106 appearances between the years of 1958 and 1970. Rooney has 47 in 102 games. It's very much there for the taking, and he knows it.
''I'd be a fool if I didn't look at Sir Bobby Charlton's record and feel capable of passing him," he said when pushed on the subject last year. "It's in my sights. I want to do it. Hopefully one day I can.
"Both records have stood for a long time, and a lot of players have attempted to break them. Now they're in touching distance, the two of them. It's something I'd love to do. I feel I'm capable of doing it. Hopefully one day I'll hold the two records. I'm confident that I can."
Since October, he's made a lot of headway, scoring against San Marino, Estonia, Slovenia, Scotland (twice) and Lithuania to equal his own shared record of bagging in five successive England games. And with the Three Lions set to face all bar the Auld Enemy again before Euro 2016, there's every chance Rooney will head off to the tournament safely in possession of the record, and notching the bar ever higher for those who came behind him.
Typically, as with everything Rooney, there will be the inevitable talk that his goals haven't stacked up against Sir Bobby's; that the opposition was better in "those days"; that England play too many fixtures in the modern game, and, well, Rooney hasn't won a World Cup (or even impressed at one, for that matter).
But are those accusations actually fair? After all, every movement he makes is endlessly analysed, while Sir Bobby was scrutinised less so during his playing career mainly due to the fact that there was no Sky Sports News, MUTV or Twitter experts mulling over his every step. Yes, Sir Bobby won the 1966 World Cup, but in a team surrounded by gifted individuals. In recent years, Rooney has played in a team considerably less talented than that of '66 or indeed '70.
To settle the debate then, how about we take a statistical look at the story so far: Charlton's 49 goals – how and where they were scored, and under what circumstances – before stacking them up against Rooney's. That should settle the debate once and for all, right?
And before we go on, what follows is a simple comparison of stats and is in no way an assessment of tactical deployment, versatility, quality of footballer, strengths, weaknesses, duff games and so on. Just so you know, before you start tweeting furiously at us...
(All stats from Englandstats.com and correct as at Mon 30 Mar 2015)
1) Tournament qualifiers
Wayne Rooney: 46 apps (27 goals); 1 goal every 1.70 games
Bobby Charlton: 19 (12); 1 goal every 1.58 games
There's a widely held belief among football fans that modern international football is a monetary merry-go-round of fixtures designed to drum up cash for associations who are in debt to builders and stadium architects (that'll be ours, then). And while there's certainly more than enough games to incur the wrath of domestic gaffers, the number of ties has hardly increased – in 1963, for example, England played nine matches over a calendar year, the same as in 2011.
It's the importance of the games that's changed. Both those sample years were ones without a major tournament, yet in 1963 England played eight friendlies, of which four were of the old Home Championship, plus one European Championship qualifier against France. In 2011 there were five qualifiers, plus friendlies against the likes of Spain and Sweden.
The point is this: England now play more fixtures of significance (depending on how you view their qualifying pools) and Rooney has competed in far more pressurised games. And he's stepped up too, scoring a goal every 1.70 matches for over 50% of his total tally. Likewise with Charlton, when England were called upon to qualify, though he delivered with even greater regularity – a goal every 1.58 games.
Again the devil is in the detail: Charlton played 1710 minutes in qualifying; Rooney 3695. Charlton scored every 142.5 minutes; Rooney, 136.9. During 2014/15 the Scouser has overtaken Sir Bobby's goals-per-qualifying-minute rate, but there's not a lot between them.
An interesting footnote: between 1966 and 1968, the British Home Championship was used to determine progression to the European Championship's second round, so the six games Charlton played during that time are counted as qualifying fixtures here; he scored three goals.
VERDICT: The goals-to-game and minutes-per-goal ratios tell a story of life before and after the introduction of substitutions at international level. While Charlton was fractionally more likely to score in any given game, Rooney has supplied more goals per minute.