It was an evening of firsts. Never before had England played a senior international fixture at West Ham United’s Upton Park stadium. Australia were invited to take on the Three Lions away from home for the first time. The Three Lions were starting with a lineup which knew it would be replaced en masse at half-time, the first and last occasion on which that has happened.
And February 12, 2003 was also the day Wayne Rooney played for England for the very first of 120 times.
Sven Goran Eriksson had decided that he would do his utmost to keep the Premier League’s club managers happy, promising them that none of their players would participate for more than 45 minutes in the landmark friendly with the Socceroos. But for goalkeeper Paul Robinson, it meant that it was to be an England debut that he doesn’t remember particularly fondly.
“Sven changed all 11 at half-time and I can’t remember but it must have been pre-empted,” he tells The Sportsman. “Rather than my own personal debut it was more of a team thing, it didn’t feel like my own debut. I remember more my first start when I was given the shirt. When you’re actually picked as number one you kind of feel like that’s more of your debut.”
- Ten Hag rebuild aided by Liverpool and Man City implosions
- Dans 'n' Roses: The players to play for Leeds and Man Utd
- Leeds 3/1 to beat Man Utd - Betfred*
It was a decision which got Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s back up and resulted in a change of rules. “I don’t know what has happened to the motherland of football, but it was a total farce,” Blatter said at the time. “Now we are going to take action to make sure it never happens again.”
But what that night did provide in the positive column was a sight of Rooney, the youngest ever player for England at that time, breaking a 124-year record held by James Prinsep. For Robinson it was a first glimpse up close of Everton’s young genius at work.
“I’d played against him, but you knew him because he’d scored the goal for Everton and just broken onto the scene as a youngster,” he adds. “And you could see in training that he was a special talent. There was a group of us that made our debut but there was a clear one or two who were going to go on and play regularly ahead of the others.
“He immediately hit the ground running. You could see the talent he had, you could see the type of player he was, the type of person he was. Nothing fazed him. It wasn’t a case of would he make it, it was when he would.”
That England lost the match 3-1 takes nothing away from the sense of occasion. The first XI slipped to a 2-0 deficit by the break, and the concept of playing with two different sides had been a failure that would never be repeated.
“It needed to change as well because in international friendlies the second half just became so diluted with the amount of substitutes managers were able to make,” says Robinson, who won 41 caps in total. “It almost took away from a competitive game, the fact that it was two different teams meant that it was like a training exercise rather than a competitive game.”
Rooney, though, was there to stay, and by 2006 was a key member of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, so much so that the whole nation was on tenterhooks when he was racing against time to be fit for that summer’s World Cup in Germany. But Robinson insists the rest of the squad were always confident he’d make it.
“At this stage it was quite regular that one of the bigger-name players got injured! There was David Beckham a while before with his metatarsal, then it was Wayne, but I think we always knew he was going to be part of the squad and would be fit to play at some point.
“We were confident that we would qualify through the group and then that gives him another two or three weeks to become part of the team again.”
Rooney remains England’s highest ever goal scorer on 53, even if Harry Kane has now drawn level with his tally and is destined to pass it sooner or later. He’s also now a manager at DC United after a commendable spell with Derby County. So could Robinson see those management qualities 20 years ago back when they made their debuts together?
“It was difficult to tell. He got the England captaincy later, but generally with players at international level you have a dressing room of leaders. Management I didn’t see coming from that early, but his leadership qualities were probably there from an early age.”
He’s England highest-capped outfield player and for the time being at least one of the nation’s greatest goal-getters. It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since that fresh face first stepped onto a football pitch to represent his country.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change