James Lawton: Rooney seizes his day with blend of power and wisdom

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The Independent Football

You had to go back a long way to find something to compare with the raging fire of the teenaged force of nature called Wayne Rooney in this famous stadium last night ­ 38 years, in fact. The Stadium of Light has been rebuilt since George Best staggered the football world on behalf of Manchester United against the great Benfica team of Eusebio and Coluna ­ but some things never change, and in football the most thrilling constant is the capacity of mere boys like Rooney or Best, all those years ago, to show precisely how special they are.

You had to go back a long way to find something to compare with the raging fire of the teenaged force of nature called Wayne Rooney in this famous stadium last night ­ 38 years, in fact. The Stadium of Light has been rebuilt since George Best staggered the football world on behalf of Manchester United against the great Benfica team of Eusebio and Coluna ­ but some things never change, and in football the most thrilling constant is the capacity of mere boys like Rooney or Best, all those years ago, to show precisely how special they are.

Best was christened the Fifth Beatle when he returned, with a sombrero on his head, to a wave of flashbulbs.

What do we call the boy from the battered streets of Croxteth? Nothing so starry, nothing so glamorous. Rooney looks more like a boy you might see down at the chippy. It is only on the football field that he becomes an object of beauty. But then, what a piece of art he is.

Last night he carried England into the quarter-finals of this European Championship quite as majestically as Best did a round of the European Cup. With two more goals added to those which pole-axed Switzerland last Thursday, he thrust himself to the head of the tournament scorers' list ­ but that was a mere statistic. What it couldn't convey was the extent of his impact on a match that could so easily have squirmed away from England when Niko Kovac shot Croatia into a fifth-minute lead.

England produced some sweeping play in response to that jolt, with Ashley Cole running with a special bite along the left, but it was The Kid who was required to open the door.

He did it by displaying the extent of the wisdom residing in his young head, flicking, under pressure, a perfect header into the path of Paul Scholes. Result: the end of a three-year scoring drought for Scholes, England's most consistently relevant midfielder. It gave England a surge of confidence ­ and Rooney his launching pad to the most spectacular phase of his already extraordinary infant career.

His first goal was the sweetest of strikes from 25 yards, the Croatia goalkeeper Tomsislav Butina managing only to get his right hand into glancing contact with the ball. And England were cruising home on the stroke of half-time.

The killer stroke, fashioned in the sweetest one-two with Michael Owen ­ an Owen who with the force of his young compatriot also seemed to be emerging from shadowy days of lost glory ­ was taken with beautiful aplomb.

When he left the field after 70 minutes, a rash departure some feared when Igor Tudor promptly pulled back a goal, he received the warmest ovation of his life, and you had to feel it was the first roll of a great overture.

Croatia's Niko Kovac buried his disappointment and held out a hand to Rooney. He will never get a better tribute. Nor will Sven Goran Eriksson ever have a greater debt to an individual player. Under the dramatically spreading influence of the boy, Eriksson scarcely needs his morning injection of job security. There was a time when a vote of confidence was guaranteed to send a shard of ice into any manager's blood but if Eriksson looked relatively relaxed in the seething tension that had been building for hours, there was an extremely solid reason, quite apart from the fact that in the ever more stunningly precocious Rooney he has a player who is not so much involved in upward mobility as rocket research.

The Football Association's chief executive, Mark Palios, who showed his version of an iron hand by handing the Swede a rise of £1m per year after he was caught negotiating with Chelsea, said that defeat, presumably any kind of defeat, would still leave Eriksson bombproof. "There is no question of Sven not being retained, whatever happens against Croatia," Palios was saying before the game. "If we go out, it will be because we lost the first game when we looked to have it won." Maybe the reason would have run a little more deeply, something quite serious like appalling neglect of natural resources.

It was intriguing, if distinctly edgy speculation. But only for 40 minutes. First Scholes, and then The Kid himself made it seem like a Croatian fantasy cooked up over a vat of slivovitch.

Rooney swept on, claiming both the spoils of the night and, surely, firm membership of the élite of world football. He also earned from his grateful manager comparison with Pele. That is something of a push, but last night horizons were stretched out. At 18, the trajectory of his progress is quite breathtaking. Whatever happens in the rest of this tournament, it can be said that England, after some barren years, have made a massive mark on the world game. They have unearthed one of the game's great, natural talents.

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