Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Wayne Rooney still England's top dog

England's Wayne Rooney (right) and Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman battle for the ball during the International Friendly match at Wembley Stadium, London
England's Wayne Rooney (right) and Republic of Ireland's Seamus Coleman battle for the ball during the International Friendly match at Wembley Stadium, London

Irish football, on both sides of the border, has long experience of Manchester United players who were regulars for their country but not their club, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon for England, and especially for a player who cost around £30m and is England's fifth-highest goalscorer.

But that is Wayne Rooney's status at present. In limbo at Old Trafford, the first name on the team sheet for England. Roy Hodgson said prior to this game that when it came to Rooney “My faith has never wavered”. Given Rooney's performances for the current England manager why would it? Forced to sideline Rooney at the start of his reign because he was suspended for the opening games of Euro 2012 Hodgson brought him into the side as soon as possible and was rewarded with a goal in the defeat of Ukraine. However, Rooney was not match-fit then and it showed. This season he has been a key player scoring six times in his five appearances prior to tonight. Four of these matches were World Cup qualifiers, the other against Brazil. While three of the six goals were against San Marino this was still significant given he had managed just four goals in the previous two seasons combined under Fabio Capello, two of them coming in one match against Bulgaria.

It is as if England this last year has provided a haven for Rooney from his problems in Manchester. With his country he remains top dog and retains the manager's support. Hodgson usually plays Rooney in his best position, behind the front man, rather than wide left, midfield, or the various other positions he fills at United to facilitate Robin Van Persie, the new favourite.

Last night  Rooney drifted between the lines, dropping into pockets of space, always with his head up, searching for the killer pass. He overdid the latter in the first half when like his team-mates he squandered possession too readily, but there were some sublime passes. Walcott was released with a 40-yard-ball in the first period and a telling ten-yard one in the second. There was a neat one-two with Phil Jones who was then released with a luscious pass inside the full-back which Jones' cross did not match. There was even a quick-footed bit of trickery on the wing followed by as good a cross as England played all night.

If that showcased Rooney's versatility for much of the match he operated as an old-fashioned playmaker dictating the tempo of England's attacking game with a mix of short, ball-rotating passes, long, play-switching ones and, occasionally, a defence-splitting forward ball. Unlike many playmakers Rooney also had a prodigious work-rate. The long cross-field pass to Walcott was followed by a 40-yard sprint to the far post. He tracked back, tucked in and closed down as readily as any water-carrier. At the final whistle his undiminished status among his peers was clear - his was the first England shirt sought for swapping

However, great players are defined by their performances at the highest level and so far Rooney has failed to shine on the global stage. Since he burst onto the international scene as a rumbustious teenager against Turkey in Sunderland a decade ago there have been five international tournaments. England failed to reach Euro 2008, Rooney's promising Euro 2004 was cut short by injury, and his match-fitness was compromised by injuries before the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and suspension at Euro 2012.

Hodgson, who said of Rooney: “He did a lot of good things. He was very much involved in our attacking play.”, will need Rooney in form in the autumn simply to ensure England get to the next tournament, Brazil 2014. Few expect England to prosper in South America if they qualify but France 2016 could be different. Rooney will be 30 and in his creative if not physical prime. That, finally, could be when he delivers on the rich promise he showed that heady Wearside night all those years ago.

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