Nation expects too much, too soon of Rooney

Eriksson must grasp painful truth of midfield impasse and his captain's waning powers
Click to follow
The Independent Football

When Ray Clemence, the England goalkeeping coach who is deployed on match days as Sven Goran Eriksson's sub-requisitioner, walked down the line of England hopefuls on the bench, Fifa form in his hand, it was rather like watching one of those judges at Crufts. Would he summon the bull terrier and the whippet? He would.

Clemence finally gestured to two figures going through warm-up routines behind Shaka Hislop's goal. It was an act accompanied by frantic chants from the stands - "Roo-neh, Roo-neh" - which had steadily intensified like some religious deference to a deity from early in the first half of Thursday's game against Trinidad & Tobago.

There was little doubt that Wayne Rooney and Aaron Lennon would be produced to inject some power and guile, and pace too in the case of the latter. They were needed to subdue the collection of lower-League triers and a once-venerated Man-chester United striker now operating with the handbrake on in midfield, who were heading comfortably for what Dwight Yorke later contended would have been "the biggest upset in World Cup history".

Yet rather more fascination accompanied Eriksson's switch of those players for Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher than the reintroduction of Yorke's modern-day Old Trafford counterpart, Rooney. It set in train several intriguing developments.

The introduction of "raging bull", whom both head coach and senior team-mates such as Steven Gerrard had counselled not to reacquaint himself with match-play in over-vigorous fashion, was always going to yield more of a psychological hoist to England's fortunes than a physical one. It evoked recollections of Paul Gascoigne's participation at Italia 90. The temperaments differ, and although Rooney would have to yield to Gazza in terms of raw talent, the capacity to electrify a team bonds them down the generations.

Whether Rooney can withstand the absurd levels of anti-cipation that transformed his return from a relatively minor injury into a circus freak show - not helped by either Eriksson's or the FA's inept handling - is not certain. As Beckham emphasised: "Whenever a good young player comes on the scene, people expect a lot of him, and rightly so - if he has got the talent of a Wayne Rooney. The expectation on such a young player is huge. People expect him to go past four or five players and stick one in the top corner, which he's more than capable of doing. But we have to be patient, because he's only just got his fitness back."

Or not. Rooney, understandably, was well short of peak condition on Thursday evening in Nuremberg. The vexed question for Eriksson is whether he deploys him for the start against Sweden on Tuesday, or again introduces him in the second half. If it is to be the former, perhaps the more contentious question is: with whom does the Swede partner his totem?

After only two games, Eriksson is having to confront some unpalatable dilemmas. He has, of course, always erred towards "jobs for the boys". However, that faith is being unrequited, as England appear to be regressing. A host of other coaches would have thought the unthinkable and grasped some painful truths. Gerrard and Lampard: is it truly a bicycle made for two? Lampard looks jaded, uninspired; Gerrard fresh but frustrated.

And what of that right flank? Carragher, who had performed perfectly adequately in Gary Neville's absence, was effectively sacrificed so a place could still be found for David Beckham, who himself conceded that "I've had better days" with his crossing, at right-back. The contribution of Beckham, mysteriously named man of the match, was again unconvincing.

Lennon had a brisk air about him when offered that cameo against weary and modest defenders, but can he cut it against the higher orders? And if so, where to consign the captain, who at times seems to hold his place only because of that rank.

Beckham laughed when asked if he was determined to fight for the full-back berth, in which he finished the game, with Gary Neville. "You never know," he said. "I've warned him already. To be honest, I've done it for Manchester United a few times. It gives me options, gives me more time on the ball. It gave me more chances to cross the ball."

He added: "I knew at one point I was going to get one on his [Crouch's] head. The positive was that we finished strongly. We scored goals in the second half, which we haven't for a while."

Which was just about squeezing every ounce of merit from a performance which would have had none of their rivals whimpering. Ultimately, it could be said the coach's ploy was justified. Beckham's cross. Crouch's head. Second round secured, with the captain claiming: "We know we can perform better, and we will perform better."

And the threat to his position from Lennon? "There are always players coming through to push for places," Beckham said. "The good thing is that we've got players in every position who can come in and play well." He spoke with the confidence of a man who knew that his coach would never abandon him.

The same cannot quite be said now of Michael Owen. One World Cup substitution can be acceptable; two heave-hos can leave a man believing he is being discriminated against. "Obviously it's not down to fitness," Owen said rather peevishly, when asked about his latest substitution. "I feel sharp. I didn't give the ball away. I made some good runs. I missed one good chance with my head. But it's the only real opportunity I've had in the two 55 minutes or whatever I've played. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it."

He added, just a touch mischievously: "I won't be dropping back into midfield and pleasing everyone's eye, looking as though I'm touching the ball all the time, because that would be doing a disservice to the team. If I'm not on the end of a cross or through- ball, I'll start worrying."

Reports from the England camp had suggested that Owen had articulated his annoyance at Saturday's summons to the bench. "I don't think anyone would stand in front of you and lie and say, 'Oh, yeah, I was delighted coming off'. Who would?" he retorted, adding that Steve McClaren had called him for "a chat". The Newcastle striker added: "I expressed my views to him, and he expressed his views to me. I told him that I hardly touched the ball in the box in that first game; that I didn't think we created many chances; that we looked quite stretched, and didn't play particularly well."

Owen will presumably return on Tuesday, but Eriksson has to rethink his policy on Crouch, whose high-rise presence encourages a long, and frequently aimless, ball forward. Yorke was asked if England should opt for the shorter game. "You'd have thought so," he said. "They have the players with the talent to do that, to mix it both ways. They became a bit predictable." Principally because of Crouch? He shrugged. "It's an easy ball out, isn't it? But they've got to try and get the right balance, and I'm sure they probably will."

He sounded convincing. In truth, you felt he was simply being charitable to the country which once embraced him.

Comments