Nick Townsend: Former boy wonder provides the missing link

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The Independent Football

He could be excused his untypically bashful reaction. It wasn't just the quality of opposition, Estonia being ranked 127th by Fifa and probably more intent on England memorabilia, in the form of England shirts, than proud memories from their visit to Wembley.

Nor the fact that his effort, despatched with a typical swivel required a heavy deflection off Raio Piiroja to deceive the goalkeeper Mart Poom for England's second goal. It's simply that Wayne Rooney was aware that England expects rather more than this return: his first competitive goal for three years.

It was so long ago that he was still an Everton player then, so you can understand why his celebration was decidedly muted. Rooney attributes part of the problem to a dearth of chances.

Inside though, there will have been a belief that this could be a defining moment in his international career. Because he is as aware as any of how times, and perceptions of him, have changed. From the boy blessed with limitless talent and of whom it was widely prophesied anything was possible, he has become the man speaking ahead of yesterday's European Championship qualifier of playing well enough "to keep my place".

Not much doubt of that. "Wayne Rooney had a point to prove and he proved it," observed England coach Steve McClaren. "He deserved his goal, and it's good to have him back. "

Yet, it would have been fascinating to observe how McClaren would have constructed his attacking formation had Wigan's Emile Heskey, whose partnership with Michael Owen had proved so profitable in the last two games, presented himself fit. Maintain a successful formula and deploy Rooney just behind those front pair? Or on the left of midfield? Relegate him to the bench? Almost certainly not the latter.

That would have been considered utterly sacrilegious, certainly by those, like Alan Shearer, who insist that Rooney should be named in any England team regardless. Fortunately for McClaren, he was saved from having to make that decision by circumstances; Heskey suffering that most fashionable of setbacks, a metatarsal injury.

McClaren maintains that Rooney, 22 later this month, still has much to learn if he is to fulfil that description which tends to be hurled around with reckless abandon since he made his England debut: world class. Rooney is aware of the fact that his performances over the last two years have not matched his initial exhibitions of dynamism and skill. You've always known what Rooney will give you: endeavour and commitment, even if the ball is not necessarily running for him. He started the game like a young colt turned out into fresh pastures after a period of confinement in his stable. He cantered over to the flank and launched himself into one of those sliding tackles of his.

It made no contact with man nor ball, but it confirmed his well-being. One neat chip, narrowly over the bar, was evidence that he had lost none of his audacity; though, as always, his mood can swing, in a flash, to the dark side, as a not so aesthetic arm across Piiroja attested.

Though he and Owen combined instinctively enough at times, their partnership convinced few that it will sustain England's attacking requirements through more onerous times.

Whether by the coach's design or by Rooney's choice, the Manchester United player constantly dropped in deep and became almost an auxiliary midfielder, leaving Owen to roam alone until his substitution.

It left Rooney to remain until the death, finishing his afternoon, first with a splendid ball to Steven Gerrard which the stand-in England captain wasted. Rooney then volleyed wide, excruciatingly so. Fortunately, by then, England's task had been long completed.

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