Wayne Rooney vs Bobby Charlton: who's got the best England scoring record?

These are landmark days for Wayne Rooney. Now in his 12th 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.

Some of this debate has even come from Rooney himself. When Jonathan Northcroft of The Telegraph asked him flat out in 2014 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.

Beating Bobby

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 16 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 50 in 107 games. 

"Both records have stood for a long time, and a lot of players have attempted to break them," he said when pushed on the subject last year. "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 (twice), Estonia, Slovenia (twice), Scotland (twice), Lithuania and Switzerland to smash his own shared record of bagging in five successive England games (he's currently up to seven).

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 half-century. 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 Weds Sep 9, 2015)

1) Tournament qualifiers

Wayne Rooney: 49 apps (30 goals); 1 goal every 1.63 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 1.63 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 1,710 minutes in qualifying; Rooney 3,785. Charlton scored every 142.5 minutes; Rooney, 131.5. 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.

2) Friendlies

Wayne Rooney: 41 (14); 1 goal every 2.93 games
Bobby Charlton: 71 (32); 1 goal every 2.21 games

It's in friendlies that Charlton really made hay, scoring nearly 75% of his haul between 1958 and 1970. However, assessing this tally through playing minutes is more interesting than looking at caps earned.

Why? Well, Charlton certainly played far more friendlies than Rooney has so far. Working on a rough average of five friendlies per year, to feature in as many as Sir Bobby, Rooney would have to keep going until Qatar 2022 – not unfeasible given his tactical flexibility, but the Scouse would by then be a 37-year-old warhorse (and quite possibly not be the top priority pick for friendlies).

Furthermore, Charlton also played 90 minutes on a regular basis (substitutions were far more limited back then, of course) and was only substituted during the twilight of his career.

Rooney, meanwhile, in an era of free substitutions (as popularised by Sven-Goran Eriksson), has played 2783 minutes of a potential 3600 (77.3% of the matches he has featured in), give or take some time added on. That's a whopping 9.1 matches' worth of missed time, making a case that his goals actually took place in 30.9 matches rather than 39 (so a goal every 2.2 games, then).

Meanwhile, Charlton played 6330 minutes of a potential 6390 (99%), which explains his far superior goal return. It could also be argued that a large percentage of his tally lacked the importance of goals scored in qualifiers. Certainly, there were hat-tricks in drubbings of USA (8-1, 1959), Mexico (8-0, 1961), and Switzerland (8-1, 1963).

Still, let's be fair: a number of friendlies in the 1960s and 1970s were played in the British Home Championship, a tournament comprising of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where matches were fiercely contested and rumbled with old school blood 'n' thunder. In those meetings, Charlton scored 10 times in 20 showings, another impressive return.

Interestingly, Rooney has yet to score a hat-trick in an England shirt, but that's probably down to the fact that there are no easy fixtures in international football these days, right? Right?

VERDICT: A tricky call, so we'll say evens. Sure, Charlton has a superior goals-to-game ratio, but he played a full 90 minutes in nearly every match. He also became a flat-track bully in games against inferior opposition. Interestingly, during Rooney's career, England's biggest friendly win was a 6-0 destruction of Jamaica in a warm-up game to the 2006 World Cup, though he didn't feature because of injury.

Meanwhile, friendly matches are rarely one-sided affairs these days; poor teams do not put bums on stadium seats. Even ahead of the tougher friendlies pre-Euro 2016 (and subsequent Nations League), England have recently played games against World Cup teams including Ecuador, Honduras, Germany, Chile and Brazil with no 8-0 or 10-1 scorelines in view.

3) European Championship finals

Wayne Rooney: 6 (5); 1 goal every 1.2 games
Bobby Charlton: 2 (1); 1 goal every 2.0 games

Talk about missed opportunities.

Rooney announced himself at Euro 2004, grabbing four goals in four games. His opener, the first in a brace against Switzerland, made him the youngest player to score in the competition (though that only lasted four days before Swiss forward Johan Vonlanthen went on to beat it). Until injury halted his (and England's) progression in the quarter-finals against Portugal, Rooney looked unstoppable.

This is arguably his international highlight so far. Steve McClaren's side failed to qualify in 2008 and Rooney has only scored one European Championship goal since. That strike came in 2012 when, after a two-game suspension, he grabbed the winner against Ukraine. He did score in the penalty shootout against Italy in the next round, but that doesn't count here.

For Charlton, his one European Championship goal was bittersweet. England had been knocked out of the 1968 competition at the semi-final stage by Yugoslavia, a game in which he hit the woodwork. In the third place play-off, he netted his 46th England goal against the Soviet Union.

One suspects both players will look upon their tallies in this category and wonder what if.

VERDICT: Rooney, hands down. His 100% record in the 2004 finals, twinned with another strike in his next two appearances, edge him ahead of Charlton. There's also a feeling that his force-of-nature debut might have carried England further had he not picked up an injury.

4) World Cup finals

Wayne Rooney: 11 (1); 1 goal every 11 games
Bobby Charlton: 14 (4); 1 goal every 3.5 games

Contrasting fortunes for both players here. For Rooney the World Cup has been a source of frustration; he only registered his first goal in the summer against Uruguay. In previous tournaments he has either been recovering from injury (2006) or suffering from poor form (2010).

Charlton, while hardly matching the stats of Rooney in the European Championship, has an impressive record at the World Cup, scoring goals against Argentina in the 1962 group stage, and Eusebio's Portugal (twice) and Mexico in 1966.

This reduced goals-to-game tally can be aligned to the superior quality of opponents. In the three World Cups he featured in, Charlton faced Brazil twice (1962, 1970), West Germany twice (1966, 1970), Argentina twice (1962, 1966) and Portugal (1966).

VERDICT: Just look at the stats: Rooney would agree that his World Cup performances haven't lived up to high expectations. Charlton, meanwhile, has scored goals in tournaments where England have faced impressive opposition. Plus he's won the thing.

Read on for the conclusion...


Both records are incredibly strong, with Sir Bobby's goalscoring presence in friendly fixtures, plus his four World Cup goals, giving him the slight edge in goals-per-game and minutes-per-goal ratios. Still, Rooney has played considerably fewer minutes during his career so far – 8,085 compared to Sir Bobby's 9,435. The difference of 1,350 adds up to 15 matches.

Rooney has broken the 50 mark before the year's end. But what of Sir Bobby and the implications of his broken record? Well, he seems pretty happy with the toppling, too.

"He is really keen to break my record, which seems to have stood for a long time," he said, speaking last year. "I’ve told him not to worry too much. He has my backing. I’ll be quite happy when it comes. I told him: 'Think hard about it and maybe you’ll have some good news.' I’ve had good news from it all my life. I don’t mind him taking it.

"It would a great achievement – and it would be a change for me. That’s good. He’s a good lad and I don’t mind it at all."

There's a caveat to all this, of course. "What we have to do now is make sure that he wins," said Sir Bobby. "[England] need to start winning. It is all very well having these accolades that people push to you, but you have to make sure you get something out of it."

Rooney himself would agree his World Cup performances haven't lived up to high expectations. Charlton, meanwhile, has scored goals in tournaments where England have faced impressive opposition. He also got that all-important winner's medal; during 1966 he scored goals of phenomenal importance that will be forever etched in the history books. That is surely what Rooney wants more than any mathematical record.

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