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James Lawton: Should Wayne Rooney walk back into the England team?


England's Wayne Rooney (centre) during a Training Session at the Stadion Suche Stawy, Krakow, Poland

England's Wayne Rooney (centre) during a Training Session at the Stadion Suche Stawy, Krakow, Poland

Owen Humphreys

England's Wayne Rooney (centre) during a Training Session at the Stadion Suche Stawy, Krakow, Poland

Everyone knows what a fit and firing Wayne Rooney might mean to England, but is this the one who is apparently being ushered back into the team with the aura of a saviour?

It doesn't quite square with his international performances for nearly a decade now and so the question gnaws in the wake of England's successful resistance to the aristos of French football, their brimming commitment and sense of a team coming together under circumstances that a few weeks ago suggested nothing so much as an impending football doomsday.

It is simple enough, this question hard to avoid, as it asks if it really shouldn't take more than one quite impressively professional performance – and perhaps another against Sweden in Kiev this Friday – to remove the worry that waiting for Wayne is a policy that Roy Hodgson might well have left unstated.

This, surely, would be different if Rooney had been struck down by the kind of injury that bedevilled his 2006 World Cup campaign in Germany which created such frustration it led to his red-card farewell after driving his boot into the crotch of Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho.

His absence here from what could yet prove the formative action of England's effort is another of many examples of a player of high talent but extremely unreliable instincts.

Thus there is a feeling in some quarters, including this one, that if Rooney is indeed ultimately vital to England's fate here, his return should be something less than triumphant and inevitable.

Rooney should also have been subject to the uncertainties of selection that down the years have been experienced by all but the greatest performers, give or take a few celebrity exceptions. Instead, the England manager declared that Rooney is his "ace in the hole" if those who once more have to play in his absence manage to fight their way to a foothold in the knock-out phase of this European Championship.

You may say that Hodgson was merely stating reality in the post-game huddle, but then, who knows, against the French Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck may have been responding to the idea they have been doing more these last few weeks than merely keeping warm Rooney's place in the team.

It could be that one of them is doing precisely this – although the guess is that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be the one to make way rather than the leggy, precocious Welbeck or the occasionally biting Young – but the selection issue would hardly have suffered from a hint of intrigue, and maybe a touch of extra incentive for the young players who have made such an excellent start to the challenge of covering Rooney's absence in the group action.

As it stands, Rooney, who has become a sort of Twitter version of resident statesman with such pronouncements that England plainly have all the players they need to win the Euro title for the first time in history, is due to return against a Ukraine team which has received a massive injection of belief from their 35-year-old icon Andrei Shevchenko ahead of Tuesday's England game.

England will be required to subdue a surge of national self-belief rarely seen since the most majestic days of Dinamo Kiev and the great hero (and current Ukraine coach) Oleg Blokhin – and which on Monday night left places like this city and the capital Kiev filled with exhilaration last expressed so fiercely and publicly in the early, optimistic days of the orange revolution.

Man-for-man England may have little to fear from the team carried to victory with two fine headed goals from Shevchenko against Sweden on Monday night – but in football some intangibles can never be completely discounted. One of them is the delicate balance of a team which is in the process of being shaped along new lines – and new priorities.

So is Rooney really the ace in the hole – or maybe a dog in a manger?

Certainly he has never had a greater obligation to perform at optimum levels for England when he makes his return at the Donbass Stadium – as Hodgson has made it so abundantly clear that he will.

Of course, Blokhin would probably prefer to cater for the clever, coltish running and good control of Welbeck and Young's developing ability at international level to split a defence wide open, but then you have to wonder if there is a whole lot of sense in investing Rooney with the status of a demi-god who has to be ushered back into the team whatever England's results – or the performances of the men who have held the front of the team together while he serves his two-match ban.

Yes, Rooney at anywhere near his best is indispensable to the English cause but when did we last see this character in an England shirt? He certainly wasn't too visible at the last World Cup – and he slipped off the graph in Montenegro when he hacked down from behind a player who had done nothing more provocative then beat him to the ball.

His coach Fabio Capello was as incredulous as the rest of the grown-up football world and if the Football Association won some kind of public relations triumph with its massive effort to shave one game off the three-match ban, even that organisation must have felt a little queasy at its triumph. If Rooney's offence wasn't worth three matches, you have to speculate what might quite warrant such a punishment.

But if a little abashment did lurk in FA hearts, it is not easy to see, and certainly no more comfortably with the appointment of Rooney as vice-captain.

If Rooney's ability remains real enough – and his ability to link with Welbeck was registered magnificently in a recent game against Everton – so does his wretched England tournament record that has so desperately betrayed his sublimely arresting arrival in Euro 2004 in Portugal.

That level of performance for England has been painfully elusive for most of the intervening time but still there is the sense – underlined by Hodgson's endorsement – that he can play for England on pretty much his own terms.

For the moment at least, though, England continue to operate as a team who have seen the future – however limited it may be in terms of personal expression – and suspect that it might just work. Captain Steven Gerrard was rated England's man of the match by the French sports bible L'Equipe, and Joleon Lescott's ubiquitous work and headed goal earned him the same high rating of 7, a total which the sports professors in Paris tend to hand out as though it is as precious as a rare gem.

They were somewhat less generous towards Young, despite his lacerating through-ball from which James Milner might have scored, the guileful running of Welbeck and the intelligent energy of Oxlade-Chamberlain, none of whom earned more than four. No doubt they will live with such disappointment. They can certainly tell themselves they are doing their bit for fighting England. We can only hope that Rooney will be able to say something similar when the fanfare finally stops. It will certainly be time for an ace in the hole rather than a joker in the pack.

Belfast Telegraph