Given the sad decline of more recent years it might be considered an unflattering remark, but when Frank Lampard compared Wayne Rooney to Paul Gascoigne yesterday, he only meant it as a compliment. Once it was Gazza who England could not afford to be without; now it is Wazza – but tomorrow against Belarus they will have to cope.
An England World Cup finals team without Rooney is a situation that Fabio Capello will hope he never has to face, although history tells us he may have no choice. He has shaped the character of his team to get the best from Rooney, he has shifted others around so that Rooney can flourish in his favoured position. He has picked a centre-forward who does not score goals – Emile Heskey – just so that Rooney can.
The doomsday scenario for South Africa next summer will be explored tomorrow when England's last World Cup qualifier, against Belarus, has to be tackled without Rooney who has a calf injury and will miss his first England game in the last nine. It is understood that in his absence, Capello will pick a very different formation.
Tomorrow's team have more width than is usual, giving Aaron Lennon the chance he was denied by Robert Green's early red card, and Lennon's subsequent substitution against Ukraine on Saturday. With Lennon on the right, the favourite for the left side is James Milner who, as well as being able to play on either flank, is a much more orthodox winger than Steven Gerrard.
Capello's strikers are expected to be Gabriel Agbonlahor and Peter Crouch but nothing is certain until his players, many of whom are carrying minor knocks from the weekend, come through training today. Gerrard is one of a number of players carrying an injury who Capello would be prepared to rest. With Rooney out he is planning to make a major departure from the 4-2-3-1 system that allows Gerrard to start on the left and drift inside, to a more traditional 4-4-2 system.
It will not only be Rooney's presence on the pitch that England will miss, Lampard explained yesterday. He compared Rooney's personality to that of the Gascoigne he encountered when he was invited by Terry Venables to join up with the England squad before Euro 1996. Then Gascoigne was, as Lampard later recalled, the "king" of the England squad.
"The only one like him [Rooney] I remember, and I never played with him, was Gazza," Lampard said. "He had that kind of bounciness around the hotel and the dressing room and it got people going around him. Some people are nervous and, having Wayne come round to them to have a chat or make a joke is very relaxing. He's the only one. I've met a couple at club level in my career, but Gazza was the big one. Wayne has been like that since he first came into the squad. He's one of those that when you get there an hour before the game he has got his kit straight on, and he is kicking and flicking the balls around, walking around and chatting to everyone like there is not a big game coming up. That is his attitude and it rubs off very well.
"He is a one-off. If someone else did it you would probably criticise them for not stretching properly. With Wayne that is what he is. He is a very effervescent character and only certain players can give you that enthusiasm that he has. Some players have it and keep it to themselves. He gives it out to people around him which is a big thing.
"It [being without Rooney] is a huge miss. No one would ever say any different, but I've seen quite a lot in my career at certain times, if you lose a big player of course you're losing something, but it does make everyone a bit stronger around that and people have to step up."
Without Jermain Defoe as well as Gerrard, it will not be a completely accurate look at how England might play should they be without Rooney next summer, although it will give Capello an idea. Had Defoe been in the squad then it would have been tempting to see how he would have combined in an England team with Crouch, given that the two played together at Portsmouth and now Spurs as well as in the under-21s.
It is not anticipated that Heskey will start tomorrow now that Rooney is out the side for the first time in nine games. The fate of the Aston Villa striker now seems to be entirely tied to that of Rooney for whom he is regarded as the ultimate one-man sidekick. Without Rooney, the scope for playing Heskey disappears because the latter cannot be relied upon to score goals.
Playing Heskey and Agbonlahor together has long since been abandoned by Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa. Agbonlahor last played for England in the defeat to Spain in February but Lampard said yesterday that he had done as much as he could to earn a place in the team. "He has come back into the squad and trained fantastically well," Lampard said. "He gives us the pace, probably more than anyone else in our squad."
It was telling that Lampard said "some players are born to play for England at 17 or 18 years old" a category in which he placed Rooney although not himself. After the injuries that Rooney suffered during Euro 2004 and before the last World Cup it is prudent to have a back-up plan – no matter how painful the reality would be.
Crouch favourite to start alongside Agbonlahor
Peter Crouch looks the favourite to start in attack alongside Gabriel Agbonlahor against Belarus tomorrow with Wayne Rooney injured.
The Tottenham striker should get his chance with Steven Gerrard, another striking alternative, regarded as less than 100 per cent fit and Emile Heskey less crucial because Rooney is not available.
Crouch has scored 16 in 34 caps for England, only 16 of which have been starts. Nevertheless, Capello wants to see him perform in the last World Cup qualifier of the campaign, having picked Carlton Cole as a substitute ahead of Crouch in Saturday's game against Ukraine. Crouch was not even on the bench for the 1-0 defeat.Reuse content