Kid's all right, says the old boy wonder

Rooney's international education will take time. Nick Townsend regards Owen as the perfect tutor
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The Independent Football

On Wednesday night, BSkyB, in their wisdom, broadcast an hour-long documentary entitled Wayne's World. It lasted three minutes more than young Rooney himself did against Slovakia in the European Championship qualifier which preceded it and, let's be candid, that is not that much longer than his aggregate England career thus far. It would be a certain winner of this year's Jumping The Gun award, assuming no one comes along withJames Anderson: A Lifetime in Cricket.

Far from diminishing his career, an evening of frustration at the Riverside, during which the Everton forward looked precisely what he is, a 17-year-old with boundless enthusiasm, a penchant for the occasional brutal challenge, and a barrel-load of unrefined talent, may enhance it.

It was football's equivalent of the cold shower for his advocates; though much to his club manager, David Moyes's, relief, and no doubt to Sven Goran Eriksson's, this dampening down of so much over-heated anticipation will have done the player himself no harm in the long term.

At international level, it is absurd to expect any performer to fulfil expectations at a stroke. Apart from anything else, despite the promise of his initial liaison with Michael Owen against Turkey, partnerships require nurturing. Unlike cookery programmes, it is not simply a case of mixing the ingredients, then going to the oven, drawing out a perfect dish, and saying, "Here's one I prepared earlier". Owen, whose international career was detonated with even more force, will testify to the inevitable volatility of the ascent.

"Everyone expects him to win games on his own, that's the problem," reflected the stand-in England captain. "He may do that one day, but it's not going to happen all the time. You've got to remember he's only just come on to the scene. He's only played, what, a dozen games, for Everton? I know what it's like. The trouble is, it's hard for anyone to say: 'Just slow down', because he is a good player and could go on to be a great one."

Owen added: "When he first came into the squad, we thought: 'What's this fuss about? Let's have a look at him'. I can say I don't think anyone's been disappointed. We've seen a really good player in training and, if he can just get through the initial period, which is the make-or-break bit, then I'm sure he'll go on to be a fantastic player. But just at the start - that's going to be the tough part."

On Wednesday, the powers of the boy wonder appeared decidedly on the wane as he tried his damnedest to outwit a visiting rearguard and midfield who lacked for nothing in numbers surrounding him, nor in their tactical awareness of his threat. In the end, he made way for Darius Vassell and left the senior man, Owen, who has gone through more potential partners than a speed-dater, bereft of what had been considered the perfect match.

Rooney's day will undoubtedly come again, but it will not be the smooth process towards automatic selection many had assumed. He will be aware already that football is as much about withstanding the cruel realities as revelling in a ready chorus of Goodison approval. Rooney will have observed, from close quarters, how Owen's progress has been regularly punctuated by injury and loss of form.

Probably, he will also have appreciated just what an extraordinary phenomenon the Liverpool striker has become. Like watching the most astute gamblers or poker players at work, you can never be quite certain whether Owen has come out on top or lost his shirt. During Euro 2000, a period when Kevin Keegan was casting him on and off the pitch like a fly-fisherman, there was virtually no evidence of the chagrin he must have experienced. Just that same earnest, endearing smile we saw after this victory. The fact that he spurned a couple of decent opportunities in a wretched first half for England will not have troubled him any more than this season for Liverpool, when his stream of goals turned into Death Valley at one stage.

As engagingly innocent as Oliver Twist off the pitch, on it he can become as hard-hearted and duplicitous as one of Fagin's boys. No wonder Eriksson refers to him by the strict Swedish translation of "goal thief", which is rather unfortunate, given the nature of his first goal, where it was difficult to swerve from the initial thought that the German referee, Wolfgang Stark, had been deceived by his penalty-area fall which led to England's equaliser.

Ultimately, Owen and his Anfield colleague Steven Gerrard, who manages to excite with his bravado and then irritate with his tendency for overhit passes, ensured that England prevailed when, in truth, they scarcely merited it.

Yet that is a characteristic of both players; to ensure that England extract victory from unpropitious circumstances. The same is increasingly being said of Eriksson, too, the most successful England manager in terms of his average of competitive games won. Yes, even including Sir Alf Ramsey.

In the year since the igno-miny of Shizuoka, the Swede has been constantly on the brink of departure: to Italy, to Manchester United, to who knows where. Finally, you feel, after three straight victories, he at least knows precisely where he is going. It may not be a comfortable ride, but at least you can have confidence in the navigator.