James Lawton: Rooney's lurking brilliance fails to instil hope of better times for England at the Big Show
Thursday 13 October 2005
The thinking on this was that, having qualified in such desperately unconvincing fashion, he was now about to unveil a master plan that would spread terror all the way from São Paulo to Sorrento.
England duly finished on top of a frankly smallish hillock on the march to Berlin, but then we always knew that with Rooney back in a white shirt the possibilities would open up again as inevitably as a sunrise.
The euphoria was perhaps understandable, These have been lean, discouraging times in English international football and what happened here had the encouragement of Rooney's lurking brilliance, and a certain traditional passion.
It was, as this great old dreaming stadium believed, a serious portent of what might happen at the World Cup finals. It was at least a pretty idea.
However, despite the fact that Rooney in the early going suggested he might indeed just have the sumptuous power to take on the world - something of a requirement in view of England's previous four performances - the conspiracy advocates had a serious setback when the Poles cut through quite brilliantly for an equaliser on the stroke of half-time. Earlier they had been passive to just the right side of surrender, an approach which surprisingly had kept out the English until Michael Owen struck in the 44th minute.
Before the game, the weight of prediction had been that England would have been rather further down the road to spectacular redemption by this point. While the BBC's chief football correspondent thought the roots of Eriksson's problem were that he was paid an awful lot of money, had been in the job for more than four years, and that some critics felt a pressing need to sell newspapers, his colleague Graham Taylor, the former England manager, put it down to sheer treachery. He thought a lot of English journalists wanted their own team to lose.
Such is the knife-edge analysis that develops in the competitive hothouse provided by the licence-payers' money. However, there was further insight from Mr Taylor. He said that qualification was the thing, then you build on first vital achievement. He also added that he could sympathise with Eriksson because he had been there. This was not strictly true, not in terms of World Cup qualification, that is. He did make it to the European Championship of 1992, largely thanks to a brilliant late goal by Gary Lineker on a frosty night in Poznan, but then in England's swift exit from the finals Lineker was treated... but, no, it's too long and poignant a story.
The one that unfolded here last night was familiar enough. It was of an England team redolent with talent but still having to go through various forms of introduction. To be fair to Eriksson, some of this was made inevitable by the absence of David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. However, why Peter Crouch, 6ft 7in, should replace Shaun Wright-Phillips, 5ft 5in, in the second half was not immediately apparent. It was, in fact, a matter of some mystery in that Wright-Phillips had given England a rare width and élan. He was full of running and invention when he was hauled off. Maybe Eriksson thought it was a friendly.
Rooney does not quite understand the concept of a match which is not suffused in meaning, and this, along with Ledley King's eager running, was one reason why the sinking feeling about England's chances of at last making a serious run at the heights of the game under Eriksson was put in abeyance for most of the first half. Frank Lampard's late strike restored that sense of sudden well-being to the extent of an outburst of singing in the Old Trafford stands.
But then we have heard such a sound at the end of so many qualification campaigns in recent decades. The problem is that the celebrations are based too often on a belief that getting to a major tournament unlocks, automatically, the door to serious battling with the best in the world. It does not really work like this. In qualification the real winners do more than get to the big show. Last night England merely floated the idea of beating the world. It will need a lot more cohesion and a lot more Rooney if it is truly to fly.
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