Eriksson's prodigy is no enfant terrible

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The Independent Football

It is the creed that says no good will come of placing all our gambling chips on Wayne Rooney and it is, of course, a palpable nonsense.

His return to the England attack against Poland was a mesmerising reminder of the destructive powers Rooney asserts over the carefully-laid plans of the opposition. Pawel Janas's team, are a well-drilled, top-20 Fifa-ranked side who draw their squad from a respectable level of European football. They have had more than a year to make preparations for Rooney, yet for their effectiveness in controlling the Manchester United striker they might as well have made his acquaintance that evening.

Sven Goran Eriksson did not know the exact total of Rooney's caps - the England coach is never too clever on the precise figures - but when he was reminded that it stands at 27 now two weeks short of the player's 20th birthday he made the appropriate reaction. "I think that is an incredible achievement," he said without fear of contradiction. Sir Bobby Charlton and the late Bobby Moore did not have a single cap by the age of 20 and neither did Zinedine Zidane, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Francesco Totti who will all be expected to do for their nations this summer what Rooney will be asked to do for his.

Implicit in the view that we have charged an inordinate amount of faith in Rooney is the sentiment that all this great weight of expectation is carried by a player who is unsuitable to bear it. That begs the question then if not him exactly who is? Rooney certainly seems a better bet than, for example, a man traumatised by the death of a childhood friend and given to playing frantic sets of tennis in the midday Italian summer heat 24 hours before important games.

That was Paul Gascoigne who would still count as the naughtiest boy in the classroom even if he was young enough to share a desk with Rooney. England relied upon him totally at the 1990 World Cup, and to an extent at Euro 96, and they did so without choice.

Likewise there was an injury-prone midfielder who made his professional debut ten days before his 16th birthday and, at 25, won his nation a World Cup despite, as he later confessed, having nurtured a cocaine habit that pre-dated the tournament by four years. That was Diego Maradona in 1986 and the point is that praying that inspiration and genius comes complete with a university degree, a sensible haircut and a respectable golf handicap is a foolish pursuit. Certainly as ridiculous as a nation convincing itself that a broken metatarsal bone can heal two months ahead of schedule which is how, you will remember, England approached the 2002 World Cup and the question of David Beckham's fitness.

It is time to acknowledge that as wayward prodigies go, Rooney has not strayed too far from the path. In the immediate aftermath of his red card against Villarreal in the Champions' League, Sir Alex Ferguson talked about separating the boy from his temper without removing the elements that make Rooney unique. That Rooney could find it in his heart to pick Radoslaw Sobolewski off the floor after the Polish defender had dived on it to save himself from being dispossessed by the teenager was a sign that rage is not his default setting.

Eriksson seems to have something of an obsession with Greece, the European champions whose utilitarian style he admired, and he said after Wednesday's game that if that side - who have failed to qualify for the World Cup - were playing against Rooney "they would have marked him man-for-man". That is an alarming prospect for next summer, the thought of Rooney trailing around a personal attendant during matches whose only job is to nag and worry away to provoke a reaction.

"I think he can deal with that," Eriksson said with a shrug, and an admission that even the England coach does not know which way this prodigal talent will list at the crucial moment. It is an uncertainty the English nation will all have to get used to, the consequence of having a truly original young master in the country's No 9 shirt.