Belfast Telegraph

Roo passes Russian grilling as dates with destiny await

By Ian herbert

Roy Hodgson's unintentional English buffoonery has a way of taking the edge out of these occasions.

Two years ago in Brazil he quoted the Royal Air Force motto "Per Ardua Ad Astra ('through adversity to the stars') on the eve of a tournament.

This time he scrambled around to locate a small pair of black headphones - "Hold on then, let me get these on. My Russian's not very good… They don't cover my ears" - and after listening studiously to a long question, audible to most of the room only in Russian, he brought the house down by declaring: "Absolutely."

The levity helped because the scrutiny on his captain was of unyielding intensity and that is saying something for a player who has been the centre of the conversation on these eve-of-battle moments for so many years.

The Russians had Wayne Rooney right in their sights. It sounded like a patriotic obligation when the man from "Sport Express, Russian Federation" let him know that "there is a popular opinion in the Russian team that Wayne Rooney is not the same as he was several years ago.

"What do you think about that because this opinion is even expressed by Russian players and Russian assistant coach?"

There was a time when Rooney would not have handled a question like that, let alone coolly constructed the response that he had been playing the game for many years, had changed in that time and "I don't have to sit here and defend myself". This was a Russian ambush. Hodgson later declared: "An attempt to provoke an answer from someone that would be useful for everybody."

By the time the 20 minutes of playing Hodgson's straight man had reached its conclusion, Rooney had been asked to discuss Manchester United team-mate David de Gea being drawn into a sex controversy ("No. It's nothing to do with me, sorry"), been asked about saying he'd changed his position, when he'd done nothing of the sort, and handled adoration of a Chinese correspondent which seemed to be an attempt to win him over to moving to that country.

Hodgson has not helped the scrutiny Rooney faces at moments like this because they are the occasions when he decides to chop and change his role.

Tonight, a significant shift will see him operate in a deep lying midfield position for the first time in his England career. This role has been working for him well enough at Old Trafford but Hodgson has yet to try him there. To assign the captain a new international role in the opening game of an international tournament does little to sustain the view that Hodgson is a man who knows what he has doing.

Yet it does create options. It allows England to get more from the players at their disposal. Dele Alli at No 10, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana operating wide and Harry Kane at the top.

We have declared too often that Rooney's time is upon us to make too many grand pronouncements now, but the new role feels like it might be the one which locates the best of him. It may be a last chance, too. He will be 34 when the next World Cup comes around.

"I have put too much pressure on myself," Rooney said of his tournament record. "I've not done as well as I have wanted to. There has been a lot of expectation and pressure on me and I have put that on myself as well."

England's manager and captain are an odd couple. Two individuals divided by generations and different backgrounds, yet Rooney holds the older man in deep affection. He grinned at the eccentricity with the headphones and never displays embarrassment at the eulogies about him.

For his part, Hodgson seems to take pride in the way Rooney will talk to younger players. Not for the first time, their destinies seem entwined in the days ahead.

Belfast Telegraph