James Lawton: It's not what the nation wants to hear but Ferguson is right about Rooney

'Inventing benefits for Rooney is like searching for the sunnier side of bird flu'
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His scorn for the idea that his player could emerge automatically from the effects of the metatarsal break - that brought so much intense and instant pain at Stamford Bridge - as anything more than at best a fleeting and, inevitably, much less than match-fit presence in the World Cup, was maybe not what the nation wanted to hear. But it did put a realistic check on some of Eriksson's relatively blithe optimism.

Eriksson sounded a touch like Pollyanna; Ferguson a hardman of the real football world.

The clear benefit of the United manager's reaction was that at a stroke it reduced the pressure, if not the heartbreak, on Rooney. When the player eventually appeared on the club's television channel, he had certainly gathered himself to the point of making the calm declaration that he would do all he could to be fit - but with the implicit acceptance that no one, and least of all himself, should get their hopes up too high.

Naturally, one consequence of the cautionary noises from Old Trafford was an outbreak of tactical talk about the need for a Plan B. Unfortunately, the only truly convincing alternative to a rampagingly fit Rooney failed to materialise 20 years ago when he was the only baby boy football genius registered in the land. One analyst suggested, somewhat mysteriously, that Rooney's mishap might improve the balance of the team. This, apparently, had something to do with the possibility that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard might finally just be able to get out from under each other's feet. Though much desired, this outcome would perhaps be less than some ultimate compensation. Inventing benefits of the Rooney catastrophe was, after all a bit like searching for the sunnier side of bird flu.

And yet... one consequence of the Rooney crisis might just be a much harder evaluation of the true fitness of all England's key players. The fact that David Beckham and Michael Owen performed so far below optimum condition in the last World Cup finals was for many experienced football men a pivotal reason why the chances of getting past a 10-man Brazil in the quarter-final were so sharply reduced.

The World Cup-winning full-back George Cohen, who back in the 1960s had unsuccessfully argued with the England team manager Sir Alf Ramsey that his Fulham team-mate, the great playmaker Johnny Haynes, had recovered all his sharpness after a car crash, was especially critical of Eriksson's decision to go with a Beckham and Owen so clearly short of anything like full fitness.

Cohen said: "Against Brazil, Beckham and Owen plainly should not have been on the field, and perhaps not even in the tournament. It was painfully obvious that neither were fit. It was a catastrophic decision to take along key players who could not begin to deliver anything like full performances."

For Cohen, it was the most forceful reminder of the wisdom of Ramsey's decisions to leave out the great talents of Haynes and Jimmy Greaves when they were around the prime of their football lives.

"One day," Cohen recalls, "Alf came to me after England training and asked how Johnny was getting on. I told him he was playing brilliantly, that he was ready to return to the England team. Alf thought about what I said for a moment or two, then said, 'No, I don't think so, George, I don't think Haynes is quite right'. Soon after that I reported the conversation to Johnny and said how outraged I was. But he said, 'No, George, Alf is right... I'm not there."

Such Ramsey-style rigour has probably never been more required than in the assessment of Rooney's ability to make any kind of impact, and without future repercussions, in Germany.

Here, no doubt, Ferguson was exerting his territorial rights. He was prickly over the implication that Rooney would be whisked to the World Cup on a broken wing and a prayer, and that United, who pay the player's wages, might have to pay an unacceptable price with a new Premiership season looming.

In all of this, something beyond doubt is that the club-and-country argument will never be resolved. Ferguson, like Jose Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez, has one imperative: it is to win for his club, and some mystical belief in Rooney's ability to roar back to anything like effectiveness in record time inevitably put him on edge.

It is hardly possible to imagine what Ferguson's reaction might have been to the fate of Don Revie in 1972 after beating Arsenal in the FA Cup. Forty-eight hours later, Leeds were required to play at Wolves, where a draw would have earned them the Double. Revie applied for an extra two days' rest for his team. The FA said that they could indeed play on the Wednesday, but at the insistence of Ramsey, who was planning a home international game on the Saturday, it would have to be without England players Allan Clarke, Norman Hunter and Paul Madeley. Leeds played on the Monday with their weary big guns - and lost.

The moral of the story? Clubs and countries will always pull in different directions but there has to be one sacred rule. It is that sometimes players, and invariably it is the best-hearted ones like Rooney, have to be protected from themselves. In who's interest? That is, of course, an entirely different story.

LMA's McClaren push smells of jobs for the boys

Naturally, the appointment of Steve McClaren is provoking calls for the football nation to unite behind a favourite son. In this the voice of the League Managers' Association has been particularly forceful but maybe they should understand that the lack of tidal waves of support is not entirely due to a shortfall in patriotism.

It may just be connected to a powerful sense that the LMA has been putting the dwindling prestige of their membership before the interests of the England team. Naturally, the players are welcoming the new coach with great enthusiasm, but then of course they would. Jermain Defoe was particularly joyful yesterday, but as he fights for his place in the World Cup team he is not likely to be in the vanguard of scepticism. Nor is Michael Owen, another fervent supporter, as he fights to reclaim his place after nagging injury.

What the LMA may just have to consider is that after so many years of disappointment, and seeing so many foreigners claim the top jobs in English football for the lack of serious opposition, the football public has perhaps reached a conclusion. Maybe Joe Public is more interested in seeing his team win the World Cup for the first time in 40 years than a successful conclusion to any campaign for jobs for the boys.

LMA chairman Howard Wilkinson certainly didn't provide a whole lot of re-assurance when he declared, "Steve McClaren has all the right qualifications - except international experience."

Shadow boxing is all that is left for De La Hoya

An almost unbearable poignancy accompanies the return of Oscar De La Hoya to the ring in Las Vegas for the first time in two years.

It seems such a long time ago, now, that the beautifully talented Los Angeleno was one of the last hopes that boxing could still produce fighters whose appeal could cross all borders. Most agreed that De La Hoya was a classic throwback, boxing's best pound-for-pound performer and someone to evoke the skills of a Sugar Ray Robinson.

At least it seemed a viable enough proposition to put to the Old Raging Bull, Jake La Motta, in PJ Clark's bar in New York one rainy night in the late Nineties.

How would De La Hoya have ranked in the days of Robinson and the Raging Bull, La Motta was asked. "Oh, I guess he might have made the top 10," said the gnarled old brawler. Pound-for pound? "Hell, no," scowled La Motta, "as a welterweight."

He then returned to his Scotch and a rather beautiful blonde companion. It was a brutal postscript to boxing's lost empire, but it will lose none of its prophetic force when De La Hoya dances briefly out of the shadows tonight.

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