James Lawton: Pray, for England's sake, that Rooney can prove sturdier than Gascoigne and Best

Now Rooney's face suggests that playing football is just another torment
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The Independent Football

As if Paul Gascoigne, the tragic Gazza, has any heartbreak to spare, he bestows what must be the last remnants of it on Wayne Rooney. This makes the worry first broached here two weeks ago official.

The wunderkind is in some kind of trouble because if Gazza's chief current regret is indeed that he wasn't on the England bench to give Rooney a "cuddle" when he was hauled off the field at Old Trafford at the weekend, we have to accept that we are talking here about rather more than a mere fleeting slippage of form.

The big question now - and sadly it is probably true that no former professional footballer on earth is so painfully ill-equipped as Gascoigne to provide the answer - concerns the nature of Rooney's problem.

If it is purely football-related, and maybe inevitably we are now hearing the first whispers of doubt about this, it is certainly not easy to understand the decision of the England coach, Steve McClaren, to withdraw Rooney with 15 minutes to go against Macedonia.

At every level of the game, there is no question about the circumstance a pro most hates. It is to be replaced when the action is unresolved. Rooney's face on Saturday was a picture of frustration and anger when he was forced to surrender his place to Jermain Defoe, but then such a deep-set expression has been in place for some time. McClaren had said that he was confident Rooney was about to explode, but the conviction had a short shelf-life indeed... just 75 minutes. It was replaced by confirmation that what we had was something more than the blip so airily designated by some of Rooney's senior team-mates.

The player's apparent misery inspired McClaren to wrap his arm around the 20-year-old in training last week and tell him to "go out and enjoy himself". Gazza's intervention as a football agony aunt yesterday carried the headline: "Get the cheeky grin back, son."

This isn't advice and guidance. It is wishful thinking and, that Gascoigne should be a part-author of it, only increased the poignancy of the situation for those who happened to be in the lobby of a hotel on Rome's Via Veneto the day - which followed months of doubts and agonising - when Gazza passed a pre-transfer fitness test conducted by Lazio. Gazza strode into the hotel, stopped to order a glass of champagne, and then marched on to the grand piano. He played with great gusto the opening bars of Happy Days are Here Again. They never were, never truly, and when this week he linked his own old problems with those of the most talented English player to emerge since he clattered off into a brief and self-destructive fragment of football history, it was as though flickerings of concern had been turned into a great weight of dread.

Yes, the fear may be excessive, even disordered. Rooney may get the break here tomorrow against Croatia that in one surge of blood can banish a thousand doubts and quite as many demons. It would be entirely appropriate because it was of course against the Croats that Rooney gave us one dramatic measure of his brilliance in the European Championship group game in Lisbon two years ago, when on the ground where George Best gave undying evidence of his genius for Manchester United against Benfica, he destroyed all will to resist the range and the bite of his game.

Rooney was astonishing that night. He ripped Croatia apart, he provided a goal for Paul Scholes which spoke of perfect teamwork - and how often have we said that of an England move in the last six years? - and long before the end of the game there was an irresistible belief that maybe this was a young player who could do anything he wanted, and perhaps even grow to football greatness without any of the pain that accompanied Best's accession to such status - and ultimately barred Gascoigne's way.

We know better now, and maybe we should have suspected it even as the first tides of celebrity rolled in. There was a conviction then that appears more than a little naïve now. It was that Rooney was quite unlike Best and Gascoigne. He was more focused, more immersed in the challenge of football.

He had won his boyhood sweetheart, and if she displayed a liking for the celebrity life and the shopping trips to New York which troubled some of those eager to easily compartmentalise the life of the great young star, Rooney's passion for football would conquer all.

He might be obliged to celebrate his 18th birthday at Aintree Racecourse in the company of pop stars, he might be encouraged to tell an embryo of a life story for millions of pounds before his 20th birthday, but look at the relish he brought to the football field. Now his face suggests that playing football is just another torment, an impression that certainly brought more than a little touch of poignancy to Gazza's debut as a football adviser this week.

Said Gascoigne: "Football was my escape. Whatever troubles I was experiencing, once I got out there with a ball at my feet the smile soon returned. Nobody could hurt me out there. I could express myself and I felt safe and happy."

Gazza's conclusion is: "Wayne doesn't look happy and I just want to see him smiling again, looking like he is enjoying himself again. So my advice would be, 'get your head up, the form will come'."

It never did for Gascoigne, of course, and the reasons are well documented and excruciatingly sad. No doubt he made his own problems and ignored some of the advice he now offers to Wayne Rooney, but there was no question that football and the wider world played its part. He was once advised, when the celebrities were still at his shoulder, that football wasn't like showbiz. It didn't do rehearsals. It was a challenge that came match by match, day by day, and in the end that broke, as it always would, a beautiful but fragile talent.

The hope, maybe even the prayer, is that Rooney is indeed a sturdier figure. Here, certainly, it is something that dwarfs the meaning of a single match. It is, after all, about rather more than the course of sporting genius. It concerns the life of a brilliant but deeply troubled young man.

Shearer's television display a complete turn-off

It is hard to know which was the more depressing, England's woeful performance against Macedonia or that which passed for high-profile television analysis.

Certainly the latter provoked the feeling here that Alan Shearer should not delay too long his return to football, where his extraordinary determination to be a winner will surely endure as one of the great early themes of Premiership history. In a television studio, however, the man of iron becomes just another reed blowing in the wind. He told the nation that everyone should remember this was the first "blip" of the new England regime. Previously, they had won three games - however insignificant in terms of the opposition - and all that the team which performed so poorly against Macedonia really needed was a little more incisiveness from full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole.

This was not critical analysis. It was the kind of random offering you might get in your local pub. BBC licence payers are right to want more from Alan Shearer, one of the great pros. It would be pleasing, if on current form almost certainly futile, to think that after reviewing his performance, he might just want a little more from himself.

Redknapp wrong to admire Bilic's bending of rules

Jamie Redknapp tells us that when his father, Harry, signed Slaven Bilic (right) for West Ham United, he acquired a "horrible defender to play against. He was hard, he'd push the rules to the limit and defend for his life. He's a proud Croat and [as the coach of Croatia] he'll relish this chance to embarrass England". Of course, you take people as you find them, and the view here is that Bilic was the author of arguably the most blatantly despicable act ever seen in a World Cup when he threw his hands to his face and led the conspiracy to deny the great Laurent Blanc his right to play in the 1998 final against Brazil. If there was a dawn to the age of football cheating, possibly this was it. Bilic has never apologised. Perhaps it has been a matter of pride.