James Lawton: England fail to shake off the past as Wayne Rooney confronts his demons in Montenegro

The Manchester United striker was not only influential, he had moments that touched serenity

Wayne Rooney came to a place where before he had found only ignominy and for a little while he chased away every demon. He also gave England an invitation to announce they really are a world-class force. Unfortunately, it plainly requires more than a superior performance from one individual running out of the shadows to work such a transformation.

England surrendered the high ground won by Rooney and at the end they were still trailing in their pursuit of a place in the World Cup finals.

Some argued pragmatically that a point is a point but no one should hide behind such a mole-hill of encouragement. Once again England, by the most severe demands of international football, were not quite fit for purpose.

Rooney had nothing to say in the build-up, which at times suggested that England were facing one of the great challenges of football history rather than the passing risk of a most costly ambush.

However, there was ice in those pale blue eyes when he walked back into the place where he had betrayed both his country and himself 17 months earlier and, as they say, it so much better to walk the walk than talk the talk. Best of all is to bring to bear all of your gifts and a perfect concentration of mind.

The man whose shocking lapse here in that fraught European qualifier was said to have made him a point of vulnerability to be ruthlessly exploited, and whose international career has rarely if ever returned to the authority he displayed as a teenager in the 2004 European finals in Portugal, was not only sharply influential, he had moments which touched, well, something rather close to serenity.

Whether he will ever again produce again the perception and the dynamism he displayed all those summers ago has to remain debatable but what was never in doubt in his opening statement was that he, along with his United team-mates Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, were operating on a superior level to their hitherto overachieving opponents.

It was the perfect antidote to the absurd proposition that England had reasons to doubt their ability to produce sufficient professionalism, and rounded talent, to repair the damage already sustained in a qualifying group which had been made to resemble a minefield.

Had Rooney’s beautifully flighted lob not hit a post, with goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic stumbling in no-man’s-land, it would have made the most crushing announcement that fears over the threat of Montenegro had become much ado about not so very much. His headed goal from Steven Gerrard’s perfectly delivered corner after six minutes made the same point, though perhaps not as eloquently.

The essential point was that England had achieved their first vital task. They had reminded everyone in the volatile City Stadium, and most importantly themselves, that really they occupied a superior rung of the football ladder.

That reality was now on the record but was it irrevocable? It is a question that too often lurks on the margins of any England performance the opening phase of the second half did not carry too much in the way of reassurance. Indeed, there were disturbing reminders of the bad night in Podgorica when Rooney was banished and England surrendered a 2-0 lead. On this occasion they were fortunate that neither of the stars of Montenegro, Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina and Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, were able to convert good chances.

England’s sense of well-being was dissipating at an alarming rate, sufficiently certainly for Montenegro’s coach, Branko Brnovic, to recover some of the swagger he had displayed in his pre-matching baiting of England. Joe Hart was required to make several brilliant saves before Brnovic had another reason to leap from his dugout, this time to celebrate his decision to send on the hard-driving substitute Dejan Damjanovic at the start of the second half. It was Damjanovic who slotted in the equaliser after another barrage on Hart’s goal.

England’s Roy Hodgson could only bury his head at the possibility that the absurdity had come so close to fulfilment, that a pocket state of 600-odd thousand were at very least maintaining their two-point lead at the head of the race for Rio.

It could have been worse. England could have crumpled completely under the pressure of Montenegro’s second-half recovery. Instead, they merely chased that obligation which had pressed so heavily in the Balkan night. It was to produce, from under the weight of much heavy talk, a big performance, an announcement that England really do belong somewhere around the top of world football. It was an ambition that blew away with the smoke of the flares that signalled another ultimately grim night in Montenegro.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific