Rooney labours to live up to the 'big man' label

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The Independent Online

If Wayne Rooney is not suffering a crisis of confidence, then the match programme for last night's European Championship qualifier could have tipped the balance. There, listed like it was a moment so old it was covered in cobwebs, was Great England Moments No 13. The gem dredged from the archives? His last competitive goal for his country.

Rooney is not 21 until later this month so a 28-month gap since he last found the net in a meaningful game represents more than 10 per cent of his life. Which is a depressing statistic, when he has been anointed as England's Diego Maradona, a player with the rarest gifts to lift a nation to the highest prizes.

The big man may have been back but the Macedonians had little reason to feel dwarfed last night because he merely replicated his insipid club form. It was Wayne on the wane when he played for Manchester United against Benfica in the Champions' League 12 days ago, as he made presents of the ball almost as liberally as swear words appear to litter his vocabulary.

He was a peripheral figure, stuck on the wing and seemingly uncomfortable in possession. Compare that to the nerveless tiro described in Steven Gerrard's recent autobiography, who prepared for a Euro 2004 match against France. "Just give me the ball. I will do it. I want it," he said.

Last night it was soon clear that was the problem: England could not get the ball to him with any consistency. Back in the side after serving a three-match suspension, it was the third minute before he gained possession and instantly you saw what the fuss is about. A draw-back with the sole of his right foot lost an opponent with the casual confidence of a matador waving a bull by with his cape. Old Trafford rose to applaud, but it was a rare opportunity to pay homage and an isolated chance for him to rebuild his self-belief.

It was partly because he was starved of meaningful action that Rooney erupted with frustration in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in Gelsen-kirchen to earn his ban and you could feel a similar exasperation as he slid in late into a tackle that left Ilco Naumoski needing treatment. This time Markus Merk merely delivered a quiet word. Other referees would have contemplated a yellow card.

The sins of incoherence and sluggishness ran through the England team like a virus but it was the spearheads who first dragged Steve McClaren to the touchline. Which striker the England coach was ordering to move higher up the pitch was unclear, but it was blatant they were duplicating each other in dropping deep. Both Peter Crouch and Rooney worked furiously - indeed the latter had the air of trying too hard - but such was the dross coming their way they did not receive enough touches to develop a rhythm. Under the circumstances you could understand their inclination to do the job the midfielders were resolutely failing to do.

Only belatedly did England escape the straitjacket of their own making. Crouch had a header saved by Jane Nikoloski and Rooney's shot was blocked in the 66th minute by the Macedonian goalkeeper when Crouch's pass was the first hint of a link between the strikers. But if you were being hyper-critical you would say Rooney's first touch had not been as assured as you would expect from a world-class player.

Indeed, his lunge at Naumoski apart, Rooney spent much of the evening acting as a goodwill ambassador, picking up injured Macedonians or delivering them the ball for free-kicks. It was a much desired sign of maturity in Mr Vesuvius, but when McClaren had said his No 9 would explode on the match, he did not mean with generosity.

Rooney's night was summed up when he used his pace and strength to lever a defender out of his way on the right and then burst into the area with trademark menace. Except the feet lacked their usual deftness, the blur became one of desperation rather than touch, and unfortunately the ball squirted away like a bar of soap.

After 74 minutes he was withdrawn, a player bemused at the sudden elusiveness of form. The boy who found football easy is becoming a man who is confronting spectres of doubt for the first time.

QUOTES OF THE DAY

We've had a reality check. Now we must show character and resilience against Croatia. You could see in the faces of the players after the game that they want to put it right. We have got one disappointed dressing room because we did not perform to our normal standards.

Steve McClaren, England coach

We have normally been quick off the mark and we weren't. Macedonia were very quick on the counter-attack. We weren't on the front foot. We didn't drive at them and our passing wasn't good.

McClaren

We played very well tactically. It was a good result for us. I was satisfied with one point because England had some chances. I expected England to play more aggressively. They played very well but there was a lot of space in the English defence.

Srecko Katanec, Macedonia coach

They are a good side. If someone like Italy came here and played like that, we would all be drooling over them. From our point of view it was disappointing. We had some chances, the keeper made some saves, we hit the woodwork.

Peter Crouch, England striker

It was an innocuous challenge. It warranted a free-kick without the show of the card.

McClaren on the caution that rules midfielder Steven Gerrard out of Wednesday's match against Croatia

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