A professional golfer of great distinction once confessed to Ernest Hemingway that he never putted so well as when afflicted by a dose of gonorrhoea. It was not a statement to charm country club America, or anywhere else which prided itself on the values of respectable home and hearth, but the golfer sipped his bourbon and water and insisted, "It concentrates the mind wonderfully." This is not to suggest that Wayne Rooney contracted anything more than a bad case of guilt and family crisis in his hugely publicised collisions with a prostitute but the golfer's point may be of some encouragement to England when Rooney steps out against Switzerland in Basle tonight.
What the golfer was saying, after all, was that if something is important enough to you, if, say, it is the talent which ultimately will always define your place in the world, it is possible for a little while at least to push aside all distractions, however painful.
If this is indeed true, it might also be right that for Rooney, with what has been described by people ostensibly close to him as a "personal nightmare" lasting some months out in the open, there may be a certain release of pressure when he goes out on the field.
This was certainly the case with such luminously gifted but otherwise troubled footballers as George Best and Paul Gascoigne. Off the field their lives were mostly in chaos; on it they became masterpieces of brilliant, intuitive thought and instinctive action.
Sir Bobby Charlton recalls encountering Best at morning training for which the Irishman arrived straight from his favourite watering hole after an all-night session. Best ran with wonderful urgency and when they brought out the ball he once again made it seem like his personal toy. Charlton shook his head and said to Best: "Tell me, what did you get up to last night?" There followed a familiar recital, pubs and clubs and discos and then a prodigious march to the dawn and beyond in the place he made a legend of his times, the Brown Bull in Salford. Charlton said: "George, maybe one day they will put you in a bottle in some laboratory at Manchester University."
For Best and Gascoigne, and maybe it will prove so for Rooney in Basle, the field of play was not so much a place of trial as of deliverance, where you didn't have to fret over right or wrong, if you ever truly did that before the bad deeds were done. It was somewhere to respond to that in your nature which gave you the most uncomplicated and least perilous joy.
One of the reasons Malcolm Allison, an English coach who would be lionised today for his brilliance and innovation and strength in dealing with players, worked with such passion at Manchester City from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies was that he never believed he fulfilled himself on the field. But he knew what it meant to play, and especially the sense of release it provided from all the cares of an often problematic life.
When the playing was over he recalled: "The thing I remember most is the feeling that came to me when the referee started the game. I might be weighed down by debts, bookmakers might be looking for me, but as soon as we kicked off I thought, 'No one can touch me now. This is my island.' Once I got kicked in the chest at Sheffield Wednesday and I couldn't get any breath and I thought, 'This is it, I'm dying.' One thought came to my head, 'I've got £200 in my pocket in the dressing room – £200 unspent."
The money may have changed – Rooney is reported to have given a hotel porter £200 for a pack of cigarettes on a night he also handed a hooker £1,200 – but some things are maybe the same. Rooney may get the same release known to Best and Gascoigne when the action starts tonight. He may be reminded that there is in one part of his life a place where the sneers and the derision, the taunts of "Shrek" and "Old Slappers", can be stopped dead.
Some still say that classifying Rooney's talent as great is wrong. They cannot have been watching. Yes, he showed nothing of the best of himself in the World Cup in South Africa, and perhaps for a reason we know better today, but the extent of his failure was in direct proportion to the expectations he had created. Down the years he has done this with a vision and a touch and a conviction that have regularly promised a total eclipse of all domestic rivals – and a serious challenge to the best in the world.
On Friday night against Bulgaria, before the storm broke, there were at least some old indicators of such a promise, passes of marvellous control and easy vision. However, there was still something missing. As one fine judge noted, the beautifully flighted chip which forced the Bulgarian goalkeeper to make a fingertip save would, pre-World Cup, almost certainly have been less speculative, something more instant and direct, something beyond the resources of a merely decent keeper.
England's captain, Steven Gerrard, who was admirably quick to concede that he had made a few mistakes of his own while acknowledging the requirement of international players to maintain certain values, made some encouraging noises in Basle. He said that Rooney had trained hard and seemed to be focused on the game. Gerrard also echoed the message coming down the years from the inconvenienced golfer. In action there can indeed be a powerful release.
How Rooney resolves his married life is something over which he may not have too much control. But then we are told he is seeking to atone, a challenge which will test him soon enough. Tonight, though, there is a different one. It would be ironic, but not too surprising here, if he just happens to tear it to shreds.
Pietersen should go back to basics if he wants to pass the Ashes audition
Even by his own standards of stupendous partiality, celebrity sports columnist Piers Morgan is currently inspiring at least some of the gawping incredulity he and his fellow talent-show panellists adopt while analysing those auditions which would more appropriately demand action by the League Against Cruel Sports.
Quite soon after demanding to know who Franz Beckenbauer thought he was, he now berates the England cricket selectors for dropping his bosom pal Kevin Pietersen. It's a disgrace, one of the most shameful decisions in the history of English sport, wails Mr Morgan.
Presumably, he didn't see the shot which gave Pietersen a golden duck in the final Test of a summer in which he had made a progressive parody of his former brilliance.
Pietersen is a player of huge talent, of course, and his contribution to the Ashes victory of 2005 will not be easily forgotten. However, his game is in such pieces it will need to provide more reassurance to a responsible set of selectors than could be provided by a spectacular century against the humdrum bowling of county cricket at the weekend. Despite much urging, Pietersen has neglected the hard job that from time to time faces even the most talented of performers. This is to rebuild your technique, vital work at any time but an absolute imperative when your next assignment is a Test series in Australia.
Whoever Pietersen, or his friend, thinks he is, it is a rule which has to be observed. It isn't a disgrace. It's a reality which grown-up sportsmen generally embrace.
After Murray's heretical confession, McEnroe might instil belief
Andy Murray's final disappointment of the Grand Slam season provoked a previously unmentionable thought. "Maybe, I'll never win a Slam," he declared after collapsing against the lightly considered Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka.
It was a bleak reflection, but when you considered the hysteria that periodically grips British tennis – ie every time a major tournament arrives – it was probably better out than in. Waiting for Murray's big breakthrough is beginning to look like a self-denying prophecy.
However, he remains Britain's outstanding prospect since Fred Perry and, having uttered the heretical self-doubt, he might have a better chance of performing an ambush or two of his own. Still, it would be a marvellous idea to invest in some top-flight guidance, ideally from someone like Boris Becker or John McEnroe.Reuse content