Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Veteran Wayne Rooney has plenty to prove against Montenegro

All eyes will be on Wayne Rooney tonight as England face Montenegro
All eyes will be on Wayne Rooney tonight as England face Montenegro

After shooting all those fish in the San Marino barrel, England now tell us they are bracing themselves for the really serious World Cup action in Montenegro, population 632,000 give or take a few elusive brigands up in the mountains. Wayne Rooney, we are also told, is to be put on a spit of unprecedented provocation.

"Target Rooney" declares a banner headline over a story which has Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, Montenegro's captain and one of only two home players who might on their best days reasonably cause a flicker of concern to one of the world's more serious football nations, explaining the full extent of England's prospective ordeal.

The fans in Podgorica, suggests Vucinic, are sure to remember that the last time the Manchester United forward appeared before them he earned a red card so gratuitous, so mindless, his then manager Fabio Capello almost wept with disbelief and rage.

So, yes, Rooney's composure, which has never threatened to be legendary, may come under certain pressure.

If you're already aghast at the English football genius for turning a chore which should be utterly straightforward when subjected to a decent level of professional coherence into one of the great dramas of human history, you will not be totally reassured by this assertion from captain Steven Gerrard: "Everyone has to take responsibility – we must keep 11 on the pitch." Duh, right skip.

Nor was manager Roy Hodgson exactly breezing along the high road when he said after the essentially farcical exercise against San Marino, "If you're England manager or playing for England, the pressure is always on. You're always there to be judged and I don't necessarily think the pressure builds up because a particular game takes on more importance. So I don't feel any more pressure going into the next game than this one. If we had played badly [against San Marino] I'd have been very sad about it."

Not as sad as anyone who had even briefly registered on the fact that England, home of the richest league in the world, are apparently in grave danger of slipping five points off the pace as they seek to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in Brazil. It should be nonsense, of course, but unfortunately it isn't.

Hodgson is an experienced and in many ways erudite football man but if he is due a certain sympathy for the extent of the disconnection between his ambitions and the interests of Premier League managers, and the scale of the chaos he inherited when Capello left so soon before last summer's misadventure at the European Championship, there is a point when he has to identify some of the pressure building around him and not, say, the serially offending Rooney.

If Rio Ferdinand has emerged as the villain of the latest dysfunction at the heart of England planning, there is a case that Hodgson has been less than candid with the United defector throughout the whole miserable affair.

This, though, is still another embarrassing mishap that has to be consigned to the past in Montenegro.

Hodgson is wrong about the absence of pressure. It is immense and it relates directly to the fact that in their last two seriously competitive games, against Ukraine at Wembley last September and in Poland in October, England looked anything but sure-fire contenders for the serious World Cup action.

Frank Lampard relieved the embarrassment at Wembley with the late penalty after Ukraine outplayed England as substantially as they had in Donetsk in the Euro finals. In Poland England surrendered their advantage when developing a compulsion to feed the ball to the opposition.

Now there are various requirements. One of them is that Rooney justifies the confidence of all those team-mates who have this week been assuring us that his mind has become a steel trap which will descend instantly on the slightest whim to do something utterly irresponsible that might push him ahead of David Beckham in the race that currently has them locked on two red cards each while wearing the England shirt.

Another priority is that England generally kick into touch the claim of the Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic that they have come into his country filled with apprehension. He says that England complaints about the quality of the Podgorica pitch are somewhat mystifying in that, "As far as I know England has always favoured long passes and I cannot see why they are complaining about the pitch. It supports the feeling that they are more scared of this game than we are."

It might not be the strangest development after the close-run drama which erupted after Rooney's dismissal in the European qualifier 17 months ago – but only in the long-established context of a team which so often seems incapable of producing the best of itself under anything resembling serious pressure.

Perhaps the most damning indictment came from Capello in Cape Town as England laboured so desperately towards the 2010 World Cup round of 16 in which they were dismantled so thoroughly by another emerging young German team. Capello, who is flourishing so serenely as manager of Russia, complained that he didn't recognise his own team as they floundered so dismally in the goalless draw with Algeria.

This is the spectre that hovers over Roy Hodgson in Podgorica and it is one which needs to be dispelled with maximum conviction.

Montenegro are not San Marino, it is true, but nor are they anything approaching a front-rank football nation. If England do not remind us of this, if they do not look a team in charge of themselves in every professional respect, it will perhaps tell us once again that nor are they. The big talk, let's face it, has become meaningless. What is needed, perhaps more than ever, is a big performance.

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