World Cup 2014: Are we ready for take-off? England’s young players are flying but Wayne Rooney may be lagging
The Calvin Report: As new generation make their mark in Peru friendly Hodgson questions how the public place their hopes on England's talismanic striker – who is showing signs he may not be fully fit
Sunday 01 June 2014
Roy Hodgson once named The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow as one of his six favourite novels. As the England manager settles down with something intellectually stimulating on the transatlantic flight from Luton to Miami today, he may care to reflect on the book’s central figure.
Augie March, who lives on his wits in Chicago’s criminal class, is fond of quoting Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who observed that “a man’s character is his fate.” This may be of some relevance to Wayne Rooney, whose favourite book, apparently, is Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by JK Rowling.
Rooney’s infamously fragile metatarsal may as well be made of tungsten these days, but he remains the centre of attention. He fulfils England’s need for a conduit for ritual ambition and random pessimism, which was filled by Paul Gascoigne in a previous generation. The unspoken question, whether he has the character to cope, is unanswered.
“It’s a bit sad that the country is so Wayne Rooney-obsessed,” Hodgson reflected after the half-term treat of a farewell friendly win against Peru. “I don’t think that Wayne sets himself up to be anything other than a very important member of the squad who tries his best at all times. We don’t have the same obsession.”
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Unfortunately Paul Scholes, that most unlikely of media darlings, set the tone of the debate by inferring that this may be his former team-mate’s last World Cup. He gives him no more than three more seasons at the highest level.
It still seems inconceivable that Rooney will not start in England’s opening Group D game against Italy in Manaus on 14 June, but Daniel Sturridge has surely secured the lead striker’s position. Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offer options in a No 10 role that seems an uneasy compromise when occupied by someone of Rooney’s gifts and inclinations.
“As far as I’m concerned, talk about combinations doesn’t interest me,” Hodgson insisted. “All I want is for Wayne to play well and Daniel Sturridge to play well and for them to score and create goals. That’s what they are here for. That’s what we work hard to help them to do as a team.
“Every player worked for the team,” he added of Friday’s 3-0 win over Peru. “Wayne did the running back well. You don’t want to be outnumbered in midfield so you want your second striker running back to help out. He did that well and when he went off, Raheem Sterling did it well. It’s something we work on in training. We expect the players to do it and Wayne does it as well as anybody.”
I used an old scout’s trick at Wembley, studying Rooney in isolation for up to 20 minutes at a time. That meant resisting the temptation to follow play. It is a strangely intimate process, in which mannerisms become familiar and shortcomings are teased out of the blur of a game at the highest level.
Rooney had the air of a sheepdog chasing an uncooperative flock of sheep. His energy was unproductive and his diligence was tested. He made one lung-bursting sprint into space which was neither recognised nor rewarded, and was marginally off target with his passing when he sought to pick out Sturridge’s runs.
He is evidently short of fitness. Intriguingly, after a brief conversation with physiotherapist Gary Lewin in front of the England bench, he retreated to the dressing room after his substitution. Hodgson must be tempted to employ him in some capacity in the next warm-up game against Ecuador in Miami on Wednesday.
Rickie Lambert, who has completed the formalities of his £4 million move to Liverpool, is a definite starter. “I am happy for him” said Hodgson. “You will see a fellow running around with all the joy his heart can muster. I congratulate Liverpool on signing a good player.
“It is a pity for Southampton, but I am afraid the top players are always going to gravitate to the top clubs. That’s where the money is, that’s where Champions’ League football is. Unfortunately, there are always bigger fish in the sea. It is hard to keep those big fish away sometimes.”
Hodgson recognises the importance of the club cells within his team. He admits his defence is settled, despite indications that, without the ball, England tend to give counter-attacking opponents too much space.
He acknowledges that he has a variety of options further forward but is weary of being second guessed: “It is a little bit infuriating to see players who come on in the last 10, 15 minutes when the game is over – there is a lot of space and the opposition are on their knees – being compared to players who have had to go out earlier, when the opposition are throwing themselves into challenges and getting 10 men behind the ball.
“I am not focusing on one individual. I don’t come in, thinking as I walk, what am I going to say about Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard today? I am thinking about the game and the 11 players. Wayne and Steven have never asked to be elevated to the position they are in now. They’ve got there because they are good footballers.
“They know as senior players with a lot of caps that there is a lot more responsibility on their shoulders than there is on a Raheem Sterling or a Ross Barkley, who have hardly played a game. They also know I don’t expect more of them than they can give. All I want them to do is bring the skills I see in a Manchester United shirt and a Liverpool shirt to an England shirt.”
Can Hodgson convince us of Rooney’s relative insignificance, with World Cup hysteria building? Doubtful. To quote Augie March: “That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.”
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