Wayne Rooney confronts demons in Montenegro but England fail to shake off past
Wayne Rooney came to a place where before he had found only ignominy and for a little while he chased away every demon. He also gave England an invitation to announce they really are a world-class force. Unfortunately, it plainly requires more than a superior performance from one individual running out of the shadows to work such a transformation.
England surrendered the high ground won by Rooney and at the end they were still trailing in their pursuit of a place in the World Cup finals.
Some argued pragmatically that a point is a point but no one should hide behind such a mole-hill of encouragement. Once again England, by the most severe demands of international football, were not quite fit for purpose.
Rooney had nothing to say in the build-up, which at times suggested that England were facing one of the great challenges of football history rather than the passing risk of a most costly ambush.
However, there was ice in those pale blue eyes when he walked back into the place where he had betrayed both his country and himself 17 months earlier and, as they say, it so much better to walk the walk than talk the talk. Best of all is to bring to bear all of your gifts and a perfect concentration of mind.
The man whose shocking lapse here in that fraught European qualifier was said to have made him a point of vulnerability to be ruthlessly exploited, and whose international career has rarely if ever returned to the authority he displayed as a teenager in the 2004 European finals in Portugal, was not only sharply influential, he had moments which touched, well, something rather close to serenity.
Whether he will ever again produce again the perception and the dynamism he displayed all those summers ago has to remain debatable but what was never in doubt in his opening statement was that he, along with his United team-mates Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, were operating on a superior level to their hitherto overachieving opponents.
It was the perfect antidote to the absurd proposition that England had reasons to doubt their ability to produce sufficient professionalism, and rounded talent, to repair the damage already sustained in a qualifying group which had been made to resemble a minefield.
Had Rooney’s beautifully flighted lob not hit a post, with goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic stumbling in no-man’s-land, it would have made the most crushing announcement that fears over the threat of Montenegro had become much ado about not so very much. His headed goal from Steven Gerrard’s perfectly delivered corner after six minutes made the same point, though perhaps not as eloquently.
The essential point was that England had achieved their first vital task. They had reminded everyone in the volatile City Stadium, and most importantly themselves, that really they occupied a superior rung of the football ladder.
That reality was now on the record but was it irrevocable? It is a question that too often lurks on the margins of any England performance the opening phase of the second half did not carry too much in the way of reassurance. Indeed, there were disturbing reminders of the bad night in Podgorica when Rooney was banished and England surrendered a 2-0 lead. On this occasion they were fortunate that neither of the stars of Montenegro, Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina and Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, were able to convert good chances.
England’s sense of well-being was dissipating at an alarming rate, sufficiently certainly for Montenegro’s coach, Branko Brnovic, to recover some of the swagger he had displayed in his pre-matching baiting of England. Joe Hart was required to make several brilliant saves before Brnovic had another reason to leap from his dugout, this time to celebrate his decision to send on the hard-driving substitute Dejan Damjanovic at the start of the second half. It was Damjanovic who slotted in the equaliser after another barrage on Hart’s goal.
England’s Roy Hodgson could only bury his head at the possibility that the absurdity had come so close to fulfilment, that a pocket state of 600-odd thousand were at very least maintaining their two-point lead at the head of the race for Rio.
It could have been worse. England could have crumpled completely under the pressure of Montenegro’s second-half recovery. Instead, they merely chased that obligation which had pressed so heavily in the Balkan night. It was to produce, from under the weight of much heavy talk, a big performance, an announcement that England really do belong somewhere around the top of world football. It was an ambition that blew away with the smoke of the flares that signalled another ultimately grim night in Montenegro.