James Lawton: Rooney leads rejection of bad old ways to highlight Capello progress
Thursday 11 June 2009
It is not likely to shake any foundations in Spain or Brazil or Argentina but what happened at Wembley last night was some measure of Fabio Capello's reclamation work. His reclaiming, that is, of an England team who are developing a competitive depth guaranteed to avoid the worst kind of embarrassment on the world stage.
No, it was not an epic landmark because such prizes are not available against teams as wretchedly equipped as Andorra, but then the pub team from the Pyrenees have created some confusion in English hearts in the past – and they certainly were able to raise sharply Il Capo's blood pressure when he started on the road to the World Cup finals.
Remember the fulminations of Capello when England, on a second straight occasion, failed to score in the first half in Barcelona last year? Joe Cole eventually broke through what might euphemistically have been described as Andorra's defence in depth but not before a withering analysis of their efforts by Capello.
He besieged them for their failure to provide proper support for Emile Heskey – and also railed against the failure of England's superstars to take a proper grip on such an unequal contest. Andorra haven't got any better since then, perhaps they have even got worse – a point Jimmy Greaves speculated upon with some wonderment at half-time – but there was a point to Wayne Rooney's particularly fierce rejection of those deeply unsatisfactory days when you couldn't rely on England to cross the touchline without some grievous psychological mishap. It was that England, and Rooney, have indeed moved on.
Whether it is anywhere near far enough to make some kind of challenge to the front rank nations in South Africa next summer is a point Greaves, a guest at Wembley after receiving, along with other members of the 1966 World Cup squad who did not play in the final, his winning medal from prime minister Gordon Brown, was understandably reluctant to engage. He said that Andorra were maybe the worst team he had ever seen, but then England – and Rooney – in the past have been dragged down to excruciating levels.
Last night it was as though Rooney had come through the traffic chaos with just one objective in mind. He could not wipe away the demoralisation which came to him in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome last month, when he scarcely gained a touch against Barcelona, but he could certainly make plunder in the eyes of Capello. Rooney might have scored three in the first three minutes. As it was he provoked a reflex save, struck the woodwork and then moved easily through a dissolving defence to head home the stylish Glen Johnson's cross.
It was from Rooney at the very least a statement of intent that in the past has too often gone unmade by both him and his team-mates, and perhaps the Manchester United forward, who always seems to rejoice when his club decide that they can allow him to operate in his best position beside the first striker, remembered that Capello outburst of a year ago more vividly than any of his colleagues. Certainly it is some encouragement to believe that Capello's changes go deeper than some good window-dressing and a run of impressive results against opposition which can at best be described as sporadic. Before the game both Capello and Rooney addressed the issue of progress – and whether it was something more substantial than smoke and shadows.
By far the most important result, suggested Capello, was the one that came after the stuttering first effort against Andorra – the 4-1 destruction of their nemesis, Croatia in Zagreb. That gave England he lifeblood of confidence, said Capello. "It gave us spirit and belief. Without those qualities, a team has nothing."
Rooney's assessment dovetailed as neatly as his run onto the Johnson cross last night. "The good thing about the manager is that he is always demanding improvement. He has certainly made us a team. Maybe in the past the focus was more on individuals. Now it is about the team."
Though for a while England were unable to maintain the momentum that came with Rooney's early ferocity and had to be content with another from him and one by Frank Lampard before half-time, there was certainly a welcome sense of a team who had the capacity to change their pace and rhythm in a way that in the past often seemed like an impossible dream.
That sense of well-being was, soon enough, restored by the opportunism of Rooney's second-half replacement Jermain Defoe. At 6-0, England were doing nothing less than cruise. This may not have thrilled Greaves, and there was still more evidence that his assessment of opposition was not entirely the offering of a grumpy old man, but even the great striker had to concede that almost everything in football, as in life, is relative.
Before Capello's appointment England's serenity against even such a team might have been heralded as something of a breakthrough. Capello, we know well enough, is not likely to disappear into any such easy illusion. But then, if he liked, he could claim that this was at least a little bit of evidence that England have indeed move up a recognisable notch.
Bullying Andorra will never mean much in the serious corners of football, but maybe it does suggest that England have indeed moved on from where they used to be. At least, they now know how to deal with teams who never had the right to share the same pitch.
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