James Lawton: Humiliation lies ahead if England fail to develop as a team

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The Independent Football

So now, God save us, the debate is whether Wayne Rooney should play in the decisive European Championship qualifier in Istanbul next month. Even though the match against Turkey is being dressed up as a version of Armageddon, and Rooney is still a month or so short of his 18th birthday, this is both stunning and depressing. The debate, that is. Rooney should sail into the game.

But instead of claiming his place as a right, both on current form for England and for the fact that last autumn he utterly transformed the home leg against Turkey when most of his infinitely more experienced colleagues were running around in unbridled panic, the chances are that he will be fitted into the "hole" behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey. If he plays at all.

Heskey's resurrection is due to Sven Goran Eriksson's conclusion that he needed more weight up front against Macedonia last weekend, a requirement he also felt against the feeble threat of Liechtenstein at Old Trafford on Wednesday, when James Beattie took, probably for just one game, the Heskey role of human battering ram. This meant the abandonment of the coach's apparently highly valued midfield diamond formation.

Both England performances against third-class and bottom-class opposition were, for those who don't appear to have noticed or may have been confused by some headlines, quite execrable. With or without the diamond England resolutely failed to sparkle.

What they did was scratch out results with performances which, if produced in the finals, will surely lead to an exit no less humiliating than those suffered at the last World Cup and in Euro 2000. In the latter case, a Uefa official wrote a damning verdict on the lack of tactical development in the English team. Heaven knows what he would have thought about the efforts in Skopje and at Old Trafford.

The team, despite passing a modern-day England record of seven consecutive victories, seems to operate in quite separate little pockets of time. The idea of one performance building on another seems quite alien. Heskey, having been found desperately wanting in the needs of international football, is retained, possibly, some argue, at the expense of the superbly gifted Rooney, because he offers weight. "Why," asked one old pro sourly yesterday, "doesn't Eriksson go the whole hog and sort out a sumo wrestler?"

England's initial failure against Macedonia - and Turkey in the first game - wasn't to do with a lack of weight. It was because of a shortfall in cohesion and movement, a lack of any strong sense of purpose and imaginative freedom. The idea that basic starting-point formations have to be changed, and that Rooney somehow operates better in the hole - a largely imaginary concept when you consider the speed and dexterity of the best striking combinations - is the latest expression of England's terrible lack of growth.

It is another fad, just like three-at-the-back, which was the fashion a few years ago but now seems to have been abandoned by everybody but Glenn Hoddle. That concept fell apart because enough coaches latched on to the truth that three centre-backs were one too many and that wing-backs couldn't improve on the value of well-trained full-backs with enough pace to go on the overlap and who didn't deprive the midfield of manpower.

Playing in the hole behind two strikers is another duplication if at least one of the strikers has the capacity to drop back and strike from a deeper position when his instinct tells him it is the thing to do. Anyone who doubts this should pull out some old film of Kenny Dalglish. In football-speak, it might be said that Dalglish played in the "hole". In fact, he both created and scored beautifully because he read the game with more than a touch of genius and knew, instinctively, where to be when it mattered.

Do not believe the theoreticians. Coaching is essentially a straightforward business. It is about the best possible utilisation of players and the space they have to fill or, just as vitally, vacate when it is necessary.

In his innate capacity do this, Rooney is miles ahead of Heskey, and, for that matter, all of his England team-mates. Yes, he will benefit from more experience and a growing sophistication, but his raw material is already immense - and quite indispensable. For some football judges, it is no doubt a little amazing that this needs to be restated so long after Rooney's brilliant contribution to England's most impressive victory thus far in the qualifying programme.

At Sunderland, Rooney simply terrified the Turks. In a few minutes he lit up the sky above the Stadium of Light, and you could see the benefit flowing into every corner of the England team. England became bigger, freer, and the Turks correspondingly dwindled.

Showing up in Istanbul without the tormenter of Sunderland would be a gift from Eriksson to the Turks. It would be to deprive himself of an ultimate asset: a player of touch and flair capable of breaking any pattern imposed by the opposition. "It will be very difficult to leave him out against Turkey," Eriksson said. He might have been auditioning for Hamlet. In reality, he is confronted by what the Americans describe as a no-brainer. He should write down Rooney's name forthwith.