In victory, in defeat; in qualification and in elimination so the shadow of Wayne Rooney’s volatile, destructive nature hangs over this team and the future of Fabio Capello’s side.
They have made it to Euro 2012, but as England’s ten men were pursued off the pitch by celebrating Montenegro fans it felt like once again there had been a systemic failure, and once again it concerned this team’s greatest asset. Awaiting them in the dressing room, with an apology, was Rooney, sent off in disgrace for another loss of temper.
He gets older, he gets better, he is – as he was in 2006 and 2010 – the pre-eminent player of his generation but the old glitch in his system is the one thing he cannot out-run. With 15 minutes to play last night, and England’s place at the top of the group, far from assured Rooney kicked out at Miodrag Dzudovic and was rightly sent off by the German referee.
It was a night of spectacular drama: a rainstorm, a squandered 2-0 lead for England and an ecstatic pitch invasion at the end by the home fans. But over it all loomed Rooney, modern England’s uncontrollable force, the man who delivers to the national team hope and despair in equal measure.
Yes, England have made it safely to the European Championships, which they failed to do four years ago, but they will not have Rooney available for the first game of the finals. Depending on what Uefa’s disciplinary body decide this week, Rooney may well miss the first two games through suspension. The roller-coaster ride of the England team in tournament football is already underway.
That Rooney should find himself sent off just a day after his father was arrested as part of a police inquiry into suspicious betting on red cards only adds to the sense that this England team is caught in some kind of self-perpetuating bad joke.
It was notable that Rooney’s red card came after Capello had switched to a 4-5-1 formation with the Manchester United man as a lone striker. It was in exactly the same situation that Rooney found himself when he was sent off against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup finals. It is not an excuse, but that old problem of the close attention of a number of defenders – and frustration at his own touch –fuels the fires that rage within him.
Among other things, Capello, at a loss to explain Rooney’s reaction, said that it would be a good lesson for the striker. He turns 26 later this month and has been an international for almost nine years. It is a bit late for lessons in behaving himself.
What a night. Only in injury time did Montenegro score the equaliser, through substitute Andrija Delibasic, that meant they finish second in the group and qualify for the play-offs next month. The ground erupted and when the final whistle went they poured onto the pitch towards the England fans at the other end of the ground. This tiny nation deserved the result.
In the first half the home side had gone two goals behind, scored by Ashley Young and Darren Bent, but although impressive at times England were never quite in control. It was one hell of a battle on an unreliable pitch against a talented, committed Montenegro team who, naive in defence, were formidable going forward.
Capello had picked Phil Jones at right-back for his debut. For this 19-year-old it was the game that had everything. At times he struggled against the excellent Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, the latter of whom might have had a penalty when he was brought down by the United man in the second half. But Jones did well and he is here to stay, although at centre-half in the long-term.
Young was excellent but eventually succumbed to what looked like a thigh strain and had to come off after the hour. In those early stages Rooney played a major role, especially in creating Bent’s goal. In the first half in particular, when the pressure was on, Scott Parker and Gareth Barry did good work shielding the back four.
Capello’s side had started quickly and even before England scored in the 11th minute, Theo Walcott had one good chance saved. The move for the goal was begun by Rooney who played the ball out right to the Arsenal winger. From there Walcott’s cross was perfectly weighted to Young at the back post who beat Elsad Zverotic with a header.
After the half hour, Bent arrived at the back post to meet Young’s cross. The United winger might even have shot himself when Rooney’s ball inside the full-back gave him a run at goal, but he picked out Bent and the mood in the stadium changed considerably.
But a pride in their young nation stirred Branko Brnovic’s team and with virtually the last kick of the first half they salvaged a goal that changed the course of the game. Rooney lost the ball and Ashley Cole turned his back on Fatos Beqiraq’s cross. Zverotic, who had been moved further forward since England’s second goal, had time to tee up his shot, which took a big deflection and beat Joe Hart.
The home team came out for the second half with considerably more belief. Buoyed by the news that Wales were leading Switzerland in Cardiff they came at England in the knowledge that a single goal would be enough to carry them into the play-offs.
There were times when England wobbled badly. Even players with the experience of Cole found himself beaten too easily. Capello sent on Stewart Downing for Young but soon after he changed the formation completely. Frank Lampard replaced Bent, Rooney was pushed up on his own up front and Capello went to 4-5-1.
What was going on in Rooney’s mind, heaven only knows. He was getting a fair amount of sledging from the Montenegrin defenders but nothing justified him kicking out at Dzudovic. When he went off the fervour in the home side simply rose another ten notches.
Hart saved brilliantly from Milorad Pekovic in the 87th minute but the pressure was relentless. Stefan Savic of Manchester City hit the cross to the far post that Delibasic headed in with Gary Cahill nowhere. Montenegro had made it to the play-offs. England are already at Euro 2012 but the problems, as ever, are only just beginning.
An Eventful Two Days
*Thursday: Rooney's father and uncle arrested on suspicion of illegal betting, but Fabio Capello insists the forward is "calm" and "relaxed" and ready to play.
Last night: Shown straight red card after kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovic.
It was Rooney's fifth red card:
26 Dec 2002: Birmingham 1-1 Everton
Dismissed 15 minutes after coming on as substitute.
14 Sep 2005: Villarreal 0-0 Man United
Second booking a minute after applauding referee for first booking.
1 July 2006: England 0-0 Portugal
Sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in World Cup quarter-final.
21 Mar 2009: Fulham 2-0 Man United
Followed Paul Scholes down tunnel, kicking corner flag as he went.
7 Oct 2011: Montenegro 2-2 England
Substitutes: Montenegro Jovanovic (Kascelan, h-t), Damjanovic (Beciraj, 64), Delibasic (V Bosovic, 79). England Downing (Young, 60), Lampard (Bent, 64), Welbeck (Walcott, 76).
Booked: Montenegro Jovanovic, Jovetic, Vucinic, Delibasic.
Sent off: England, Rooney (73).
Attempts on target: Montenegro 4 England 3.
Possession: Montenegro 42% England 58%.
Man of the match: Vucinic.
Match rating: 7/10.
Referee: W Stark (Ger).
Group G Details
*Results so far:
England 4-0 Bulgaria, Montenegro 1-0 Wales; Bulgaria 0-1 Montenegro, Switzerland 1-3 England; Montenegro 1-0 Switzerland, Wales 0-1 Bulgaria; England 0-0 Montenegro, Switzerland 4-1 Wales; Bulgaria 0-0 Switzerland, Wales 0-2 England; England 2-2 Switzerland, Montenegro 1-1 Bulgaria; Bulgaria 0-3 England, Wales 2-1 Montenegro; England 1-0 Wales, Switzerland 3-1 Bulgaria; Montenegro 2-2 England, Wales 2-0 Switzerland.
Tuesday Bulgaria v Wales, Switzerland v Montenegro.