James Lawton: England to win Euro 2012? Steady on, edging past Sweden is hardly stuff of champions
If there was light in Rooney's eyes was it just possibly moonshine?
Before he announced here that England have the players and the spirit and the method to overturn 46 years of more or less unbroken futility and become European champions down the road in Kiev, it was fair to ask Wayne Rooney if he really was going to deliver something special.
It is, after all, eight years ago in Portugal in this tournament that he last did anything on an international field in that category.
Now another question clamours for answer. Would he recognise football reality if it landed on his head and was written on a large stone?
The truth is that England has quite enough of a challenge in this tough, hot steel and coal town tonight putting down the last of the local passion for the iconic coach Oleg Blokhin and the revered but ageing Andrei Shevchenko to steer the Ukraine into the knock-out stages of these increasingly brilliant finals.
This is the yearning you see almost every time you walk down the street or switch on the television to be greeted by the sight of young Tymur Shamanov filling the screen with joy when Shevchenko nodded in one of his two goals against Sweden.
It is an image that takes us to the heart of the wonder of sport and who would be callous enough to tell Tymur it was only Sweden? Wayne Rooney, of course, shouldn't really need telling.
England, especially with an apparently highly motivated Rooney back in the side, certainly have enough about them to subdue those remnants of Ukrainian optimism that survived the mauling by France – but does this make them anything like serious contenders for the crown?
Only if you want to join Rooney thigh-deep in the mythology that England have not been going backwards pretty much since Sir Alf Ramsey made one of his few bad calls in the World Cup quarter final against Germany – who else? – in Leon in 1970.
This is certainly not to damn the recent work of new coach Roy Hodgson.
He was scarcely given a chalice, poisoned or otherwise, when he was appointed a few weeks before this tournament began and his management of the crisis has been quite exceptional in its ability to pick out points of strength amid so much manifest frailty.
His re-organisation of the team against Sweden last Friday, after the ebbing of the momentum which came with his shrewd decision to throw Andy Carroll against a vulnerable Swedish back line, was a fine piece of tactical calculation. He sent in Theo Walcott on a hunch worthy of Poirot. Not only did it rescue triumph from the jaws of what threatened to be a quite grotesque disaster, it had Rooney off his seat with the dreamy look of a vindicated prophet.
But if there was a light in his eyes was it just possibly moonshine?
Certainly if the Republic of Ireland have sadly elected themselves to the title of the tournament's worst team by some distance – "all I can say," said Italian coach Cesare Prandelli before going into last night's match with the already eliminated Irish, "is that they have been very lucky to have had my friend Giovanni Trapattoni as their coach for so long" – the Swedish are not so far behind.
Take away the swaggering Zlatan Ibrahimovic and you would have to conclude they are scarcely a team. So how was it they came so close to wrecking England in Kiev? Because – we should really face it one more time – England are not a whole lot better.
Yes, they beat Sweden but with extreme difficulty and when they trailed early in the second half Hodgson, understandably enough, wore the expression not of a saviour but a victim.
His pragmatic football frustrated a much more talented French team in the opening game. His ability to think on his feet forged a victory against Sweden.
There are other bonuses. Carroll has proved his value as a shock troop. Walcott has found some of that tender self-belief that was put at such risk when Sven Goran Eriksson took him along just for the ride in the World Cup of 2006 and Fabio Capello brutally dumped him four years later. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looks an authentic contender and sometime in the middle distance Jack Wilshere may give Hodgson the chance to do something more than pick up pieces, as in developing an authentic rhythm. Danny Welbeck has come through a rite of passage with impressive aplomb. Joleon Lescott has been notably obdurate.
All these positives would surely have been gratefully accepted back when Hodgson seemed to be spending most of his time dodging questions about Rio Ferdinand.
Maybe Rooney has reached a point in his career when he believes he can reach out and find some of those qualities which made him such an outstanding prospect – even a revelation – when he arrived in Lisbon not as anoher bright new kid on the block but a natural-born leader, a genuine shaper of events.
Perhaps he has extended this belief to the idea that he can drive England past the Ukrainians tonight, then carry them into the uplands of football that was already compelling before Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to eclipse all else with his subjugation of the Dutch on Sunday.
That would be something, Rooney stepping out of the shadow Ronaldo cast over him at Old Trafford, and going hand-to-hand for the second biggest prize in international football. Maradona did it for Argentina, of course, in Mexico in 1986 in the one that still matters most of all but then Maradona, for all his imperfections, was a rock-hard genius.
Rooney is no doubt in need of a little more definition, just like England, and who knows, a little of it may come starting tonight. It is not the wildest dream in this football tournament – but then it is also true Tymur Shamanov is only six.
England fans are here for love of game rather than mischief
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic has shown plenty of nerve in his withering criticism of the virulently racist element among his team's followers.
He was incandescent with rage after their abuse of Mario Balotelli and it was a reminder of the time when Spurs manager Bill Nicholson went on the public address system at the Feyenoord stadium and said the rioting fans made him ashamed to be an Englishman.
This may be tempting providence, but it is a pleasure to report that the great old football man would have had no reason for such regret had he lived long enough to mingle with so many of the English fans who have been putting up with the logistical nightmares and extortionate prices that have greeted them here.
Stoical, amiable, and plainly here for their love of the game rather than any mischief they can cause around it, they are a generation who have emerged from the horror that Bilic yesterday and Nicholson so many years ago had the nerve and the conscience to confront.
On the flight to Donetsk yesterday, it was certainly easy to sympathise with a journalist from Zagreb who had been assigned to cover the Croatia following. He said: "There are some extremely vicious people among the worst of our fans and the worry is that governments and football authorities are slow to deal with the threat wherever it emerges."
Yes, of course he was right. You thought of how the problem spiralled out of control in England and how it defaced the country's reputation across the world. You thought of how Bilic's rage mirrored that of Nicholson and how it is that Uefa can levy such feeble fines in the wake of violence and racism.
Football, it seems, will always be a moving target, always generate passions that can be twisted and so, of course, it needs an extra degree of protection. It needs men like Bilic and Nicholson.
It needs enough decent men who care about the game, which makes it an extra satisfaction, when you think of all that happened, that so many of them around here at the moment come from the place which used to be the home, and leading exporter, of the football hooligan. Now it sends some of the best of the citizens of the football world.
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