| 10°C Belfast

James Lawton: Gary Neville could be key to Wayne Rooney's form at Euros


Gary Neville (right) was Wayne Rooney's team-mate at Manchester United and England

Gary Neville (right) was Wayne Rooney's team-mate at Manchester United and England

Gary Neville (right) was Wayne Rooney's team-mate at Manchester United and England

You might have thought that ruling yourself out of the first two games of football's second most important international tournament with a shocking flash of irresponsibility was quite enough to focus the mind of the nation's most gifted player.

But then it is apparently not so. Roy Keane, who in his domineering way was many people's idea of an ultimately obsessive professional, is the latest to fret about the difficulties Wayne Rooney will have keeping his head together while his England team-mates attempt to establish a foothold in the European Championship.

Keane identifies Rooney's main problem as boredom while "mentally trying to build up for his first game". He says that English players and his Irish compatriots find it especially difficult hanging around bases in the "middle of nowhere."

The worry once again is that the problem isn't geography but a rather grievous state of mind.

Fabio Capello replied to complaints that life in England's high veld training base at the last World Cup was almost exquisitely tedious. He suggested the worst affected players, a list Rooney appeared to have nominated himself to head, might just play a video or read a book in their luxurious rooms.

Marie Antoinette had to pay Madame Guillotine the price of the misattributed remark that peasants starving for bread might eat cake. Capello's reward was arguably the worst set of England performances in the history of the World Cup.

His successor, Roy Hodgson, has plainly placed the problem, especially in regard to Rooney, high on his list of Euro priorities. Indeed, one strong theory is that his decision to call Gary Neville on to his coaching staff had less to do with all those biting insights that have marked the start of his broadcasting career and more his ability to monitor effectively the mood of his former United team-mate.

Rooney certainly seemed bright enough a few days ago when spending some time at a casino disco in Las Vegas but Neville may have a tougher task in persuading his charge – if such Rooney really is – on the diverting possibilities of Krakow, the old Polish city where England have their training centre.

Still, if it is no Vegas – for a start it is roughly 1,400 years older – it is not without its fascination. It has a superb cathedral, from where John Paul II, a brave goalkeeper and fine skier, graduated to the top job in Rome, and one of its more haunting museums has a picture once seen never forgotten. It depicts the city's leaders lined up to watch the demolishing of a statue celebrating one of Poland's greatest patriots – and the smirk of a Gestapo officer.

Krakow, certainly, is a proud and beautiful city and it would be most encouraging to believe that Rooney and his other team-mates with low boredom thresholds will find at least some of it mildly diverting.

However, we should probably not sweat on such a possibility. Better, maybe, just to hope Rooney finds again some of the brilliance which marked his arrival in big tournaments in these same championships in Portugal eight years ago.

Then, he was stunningly precocious, a force which it is extremely easy to believe might well have swept England to only their second major title success before he was struck down by injury in the quarter-final against Portugal.

The rest has been more or less unbroken misery in the big tournaments, right up to the red mist of his hacking down of Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic in a match England needed to draw to ensure automatic qualification.

At the 2006 World Cup there was the frustration of injury problems which hung over him right up to the moment he sank his boot into the crotch of Ricardo Carvalho in another losing quarter-final. In South Africa there was a desperately prolonged agony of failure to deliver all the promise of a season that had been superb before his injury against Bayern Munich in a Champions League game.

He was a joyless figure, and if at least part of the reason would only emerge later in a blizzard of headlines dealing with his private life, he was also on record as saying that his experience with England for a few weeks of what was supposed to be the peak of his career had brought an awful strain.

It was a dispiriting grind of training and eating and sleeping, he said. It was something which provoked not so much criticism or outrage but, surely, a haunting sadness. And, this time around, only the hope that Gary Neville, maybe, has a key to open a door on something more uplifting than a cell.

Belfast Telegraph