Wayne Rooney refused to come in from training yesterday when England's free-kick specialists finished the session with some shooting practice. Not because he was among those taking the free-kicks; instead, the man they call "Wazza" had volunteered to go in goal, which is surely the definitive indicator about his appetite to play football.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the England manager, told the story with a shrug and a raised eyebrow but really he could not conceal his delight. That Rooney is back and fit to start against Sweden tonight is yet another fortunate escape for a manager so ruthlessly pragmatic he can wait no longer to seize upon the great hope that will rescue his team.
"On fire," was how Eriksson described his 20-year-old striker, "and no opponents," he added, "want to hear that Rooney is coming."
It would just be Eriksson's luck, Sir Alex Ferguson will muse, that against the Swede's countrymen, and with Group B's top spot at stake, Rooney comes roaring back to fitness. And, to judge by his attention to detail yesterday, the Swede needs all the help he can get. He interrupted one answer to ask, quite genuinely, what day it was - then got the day of the match wrong. When he was told that the referee was Massimo Busacca, the same official who witnessed Rooney's fury first hand against Northern Ireland in Belfast in September - well, that was news to Eriksson.
However, when it comes to Manchester United's prodigal striker, Eriksson is on much safer ground. By even Eriksson's standards of understatement, he is evidently captivated by the player. Rooney is the obvious solution to England's tactical paralysis - and for a manager as distant and as laissez-faire as Eriksson, that makes him ideal. Rooney is a ready-made match-winner who requires advice from Eriksson about as much as the Germans need a lesson from the Football Association on building great stadiums.
The effect that Rooney has had on the team, the supporters and, most of all, on Eriksson himself is clear to see. "It doesn't matter if you are a Chelsea, Tottenham or Liverpool supporter," Eriksson said, "you want to see Rooney play for England - even if you support Manchester City."
No one doubts the merits of Rooney coming back - the difficult decision that Eriksson hates so much will come if Michael Owen fails to make an impression at the Rhein-Energie stadium tonight. It will be the 18th time he has partnered Rooney in attack and the Newcastle striker does not need telling who of the two is considered the most indispensable nowadays.
With his metatarsal mended and his appetite for World Cup football sharpened, the only fear for Rooney is that he fails to remain calm, although it will be encouraging for England that the Swiss referee has at least seen the striker at his very worst and still not sent him off.
"When you talk about Wayne Rooney," Eriksson said, "nothing surprises me. I'm not saying that other teams are scared of him - that's not the right word," he added, "but they will be worried. You always have to take a lot of care of him. I don't think we should expect too much of him. Don't expect him to solve everything himself. I expect him to be a little bit better. What he needs is matches. The touches, the timing, that's what you lose."
In training, Eriksson worked with variations on the diamond formation, with Owen Hargreaves defending, that he will play tonight and hopes will allow England to keep possession more than they managed against Trinidad & Tobago. They will have to do so without Gary Neville, whose calf injury is now serious enough that he must have a scan tomorrow. He spent yesterday's training session on the touchline borrowing photographers' cameras.
When Eriksson was confronted with Owen's recent complaints about England's style of play, and their reliance on long balls, he retorted with the aside that he had listened to that "for 30 years from strikers who are not scoring". It was a withering put-down, and very rare for Eriksson, who then let himself down by checking back and adding weakly that perhaps Owen was right.
It is still Eriksson's fervent wish that England win Group B although, typically for him, he seems nonplussed that the nation's last victory over Sweden was in 1968, only adding that 11 games and 38 years are "a long time". On that day, at Wembley in May 1968, Keith Newton and Brian Labone were in the England team and Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and Roger Hunt the goalscorers in a 3-1 win. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old Eriksson was carving out a distinctly average playing career with his home-town team Torsby in the Swedish Third Division.
His record against Sweden as England manager has been poor: two draws - a friendly in 2001 and a group game in the 2002 World Cup - as well as a dreadful defeat in Gothenburg in March 2004. If you think the England team have problems now, the team for that game included Darius Vassell in attack and Alan Thompson, who was the unfortunate asked to play on the left side of midfield and was subsequently never invited back.
In Sweden, however, they are still bemused, it seems, as to how such an inoffensive little man should be the focus for such fierce derision and criticism. Eriksson explained how the first question in his Swedish television interview was why, with two victories and six points so far, he was the subject of such scorn. "That's England," he said with his usual good nature and absence of malice.
The Swedes have already bestowed upon Eriksson the highest possible civic honour they have to give, the King's Medal, and he joked that they had promised it will not be rescinded if he finally breaks the jinx and beats them tonight. Not that Eriksson would ever make a big deal of victory, but he was talking and acting like a different kind of manager yesterday: the kind who has his star man back and is beginning to think that anything is possible.Reuse content