McClaren relying on 'explosive' Rooney

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The Independent Football

Whether he did utter that crass line on his return to the England team hotel in Baden-Baden this summer depends upon which footballer's autobiography you may subsequently have read, but there is little doubt "The Big Man is back in town" when England take on Macedonia tonight.

Wayne Rooney's return from international exile 14 weeks since that fateful day in Gelsenkirchen, when Rooney was sent off during England's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Portugal, is expected to coincide with the first capacity crowd of the Steve McClaren era at Old Trafford and even a man as wary of the media as the England manager could not resist flirting with fate when the main attraction cropped up in conversation yesterday.

Rooney "is one of those players that will explode", he ventured, and instantly the headline writers were raring to go. In the interests of the finest natural talent of his generation, McClaren's prophecy will, it must be hoped, materialise only in the spirit he intended.

It contradicts the philosophy that the England manager has preached since he replaced Sven Goran Eriksson that one player, unwittingly or otherwise, should become the centre of attention in a new era of collective responsibility. The team, not the individual, is the king of this England, but just as the Football Association requires its star names to generate full houses and promote the national brand so McClaren needs to adjust Rooney to his methods before he can be credited with answering all the questions left by his predecessor.

First he faces the pressing challenge of coaxing Rooney back into the form that has eluded him with Manchester United this season and out of the malaise that disputes McClaren's declaration there are no guaranteed places under his management.

"In any football team, you have a core of players that you can build a team around and I don't believe you can build a team around one individual," the England manager insisted yesterday. "I've stressed all along that this is a team game. It's not about Wayne Rooney and just Wayne Rooney, it's about the team.

"We have to focus around a core of players that we believe can qualify us for tournaments and take us into the future. We've played three games already without Wayne and won them all, scoring 10 goals and conceding none. So I think you have to look at the facts and they are the facts. We can win without Wayne Rooney."

Try as he might to deflect attention away from the 20-year-old, McClaren's eagerness to see Rooney in a white shirt following a three match absence from international football (one through injury, two for the suspension) reflects the striker's status as the team's most important asset, and the most marketable now that David Beckham has been ushered to the exit.

"Wayne is a fighter who gives 100 per cent in every minute of every game he plays. He has fantastic ability and he is a player we should cherish," said Rooney's club captain, Gary Neville. "There will be a full house at Old Trafford and one of the most exciting things for every supporter will be to watch Wayne playing for England."

References to Rooney as a fighter ready to explode will do nothing to diminish the combustible reputation that two red cards have enhanced since July, and his volatility is an issue McClaren and the England psychologist, Bill Beswick, have had to address.

The England manager admitted: "There are lots of aspects to Wayne's game that need improving even now and that [temperament] is just one of them. It's an area that he is trying to improve on and you can't take away his strengths. His strengths are that he is a winner, he's a competitor and someone who challenges and gets frustrated if things aren't going his way. And that's right because that's the same as us all, but it's all about control.

"Emotional control is key in international football, when you are playing in Europe and you come up against referees who interpret the game a little differently to ours. Emotional control is something that all players need and we talk about it to the whole team."

McClaren also spoke of the burden on Rooney to maintain the glorious standards he has set, and there will be no finer place to ease that pressure, and the scars from his last appearance for England, than with an emphatic return against Macedonia.

"It's great to have him back in the squad and seeing him in training," the England manager added. "He's getting back to his best. We know that and everybody knows that. I've said it before that Wayne is one of those players that will explode and I'm hoping that that will start on Saturday ... if he plays."

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