James Lawton: Rooney's confidence belies tender years

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The Independent Online

There may still be a few doubts about the meteoric rise of Wayne Rooney, but we can leave them to the statisticians and the psychologists. The former have for the moment at least, decided that the second of the two strikes that brought England back into these European Championships was too heavily assisted by Swiss goalkeeper Jorg Stiel to count in his certain march towards the scoring record of Bobby Charlton.

The psychologists, no doubt, will give us periodic updates on the development of his quick-fire temperament.

Meanwhile the rest of us must surely warm to the uplifting fact that the muscular teenager from Merseyside, the youngest ever scorer in the finals of these championships, is in possession of that wonderful mystery which lies within all great players.

It is the ownership of a special, natural belief in their ability to inflict themselves on any circumstances ­ at any age.

Neither of Rooney's assaults on the Swiss yesterday will rank with the kind of classic goals which so regularly decorated the magnificent career of Charlton ­ or the acute touches which marked his nearest challenger, the ice-cold Gary Lineker.

But what Rooney showed yesterday on a day when England had to win, in any fashion they could, was something much more basic ­ and in its way equally as thrilling. It was the confidence and the sharpness to go for the throats of his opponents. His first goal was a coolly taken free header after David Beckham had floated the ball across to Michael Owen on the left. His second "goal" was the fruit of cheerfully aggressive optimism after the speed of Darius Vassell, a substitute again for the struggling Owen, opened up a Swiss cover which had been stretched by the dismissal of Bernt Haas for one cynical foul too many on Ashley Cole.

Rooney's grass-skimming shot smacked against the post and was diverted back into the net by the bewildered Stiel. It was the breaking point for the Swiss. Steven Gerrard scored England's third with a thunderous finality, but that was a mere charging of confidence on the way to Monday's winner-takes-all duel with Croatia.

The fact was that it was Rooney's free running and constant aggression that most consistently reinforced an English effort which switched, at times at bewildering speed, between the brilliant and the dysfunctional.

Perhaps this shouldn't have been such a mighty surprise ­ and not because of the heart-breaking dramatics of the French game four days earlier.

Mystifyingly, there was some talk before the game of reversion to the diamond midfield formation which appeared to have crumbled under the weight of Japanese dominance ­ and general derision ­ in a pre-tournament build-up game. But apparently Eriksson believes a diamond is his best friend and spent Wednesday's training session digging up another one and attempting to polish it. Such tinkering with the basic way you play is bizarre enough in the middle of a major tournament. Three years into a coach's regime, it defies belief.

Come match time, however, the coach had changed his mind ­ or, perhaps, had it changed for him. Whatever the process, the result was a welcome lurch towards sanity at a time when England were one incoherent performance away from a shocking elimination after just two group games.

The 4-4-2 line up, with John Terry restored in place of the impressive Ledley King, which ran the reigning champions France so desperately close in the opening game survived some early buffeting from a Swiss side which for a while refused to accept their role as the heaven-sent means of a restoration of English morale.

But if Hakan Yakin could send in a mean free-kick and a tantalising corner, he was not a gunfighter of Zinedine Zidane's terminating talent. England, scrappily at times, even desperately at others, managed to settle into some kind of rhythm by the time Rooney announced that he was about to take his infant career on to a new level of precocious authority. But again there was glaring evidence of a team still in the making.

Beckham, as he did against the French, set an impressive example in holding on to the ball and refusing to give easy possession to the ill-considered but not totally unmenacing Swiss. Sometimes his linking with Gerrard and Lampard carried the sweetest of conviction ­ and gave fresh substance to the belief that England need not have any fear of any opponent in this tournament they have now spent 44 years trying to win.

Sometimes England descended to dizzying levels of confusion, giving up the ball without challenge and allowing Switzerland, especially in those early set-pieces, a stream of chances that could have easily seen a humiliatingly early exit.

Fortunately, there was just too much strength and talent around ­ despite the uneven operation of any midfield system. Gerrard currently sums up England's strange location between being a great force and a team destined always to finish up some way from the mountain top.

At times he is simply immense in the power of his interventions. Sometimes he offers the ball to his opponents out of something which might be indifference, even boredom. It is not that, of course. It is a talent that is still in need of considerable personal discipline. No doubt this is also true of the epic young Rooney. However, what he has now is enough in the way of a spectacular deposit on future glory.

It is not, of course, the first time he has illuminated an England performance. He did it before at a critical moment, when he lifted his senior team-mates out of a terrible confusion in the qualifying game against Turkey in Sunderland last year. That was a night when Rooney made a promise that he might just carry England to the stars. Here yesterday there was another huge suggestion along those dramatic lines.

Rooney said that he was ready to settle matters in another game in which England's fate was placed precariously between success and failure. He did it with a fine swagger that announced absolute conviction. It gave England more than mere life. It provided genuine hope of a moment of real triumph.

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