‘Urchin’ who bears hopes of nation

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For the want of a metatarsal, a tournament was lost. Post-mortems usually throw up bundles of theories about why England went out when they did, but, for all the concerns about the depth of the defending, nobody could deny that the crisis point in the European Championships of 2004 came in the 27th minute of the quarter-final as Portugal’s Jorge Andrade trod on Wayne Rooney’s foot, fracturing the bone that links toe to ankle.

The England squad that travels to Germany for the World Cup in the summer will, by common consent, be the strongest since the one that went to the Mexico World Cup of 1970 as world champions, but once again it is to Rooney that they will look for inspiration.

Not merely is he magically gifted, but he has already shown repeatedly his love of the big stage. Others may go missing on the important occasions, but not the Manchester United forward. He bestrode Euro 2004, growing in stature as the adulation grew. Come April and May, England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson will spend United games flinching at every tackle on the 20-year-old.

Such is Rooney’s status he recently split God and Jesus in the top three of a poll to discover the most famous person in the world among English children aged under 10 – it is hard to know whether David Beckham or the Holy Ghost should feel the more aggrieved. This inevitably, if unfairly, raises the question of his suitability as a role model.

From the point of view that he shows what talent and hard work can achieve, Rooney is a hugely positive figure; his on-field descents into snarling, foul-mouthed fury, however, make him less of a paragon, which is why his invitation to appear as a guest at the English Schools FA Cup semi-final last season was withdrawn.

Whether that should draw condemnation or not, though, is debatable; as a footballer, after all, his priority must be to win matches, and, provided his outbursts are neither earning him red cards nor undermining the morale of his team – as, it seems, eventually happened with Roy Keane at United – it would be a brave manager who risked tinkering with the balance of a genius by attempting to curb his temper.

“His temperament is a positive, not a negative,” said Diego Maradona. “It will make him fight on the field and conquer adversity. You can’t be a saint and still be successful in football. It’s a tough, physical game and nobody gives you anything for free.”

Admittedly Maradona, a recovering cocaine addict who once took pot-shots at journalists with an air-rifle, is not the most reliable moral compass, but he should at least have some insight on what it is to be Rooney on the field. It is often said that Maradona single-handedly won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, which is both slightly true and grossly unfair on players of the talent of Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga; England in Euro 2004 were in a similar position.

Eriksson has always expressed his admiration for the doctrine of Willi Railo, the Norwegian sports psychologist, that a team requires certain “cultural architects”, key players who set the tempo and the mood. In the build-up to the World Cup four years ago, they were Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. Gerrard ended up not travelling, while Beckham and Owen were recovering from injury. All three were fully fit in Portugal, and Frank Lampard had emerged as a central midfielder of great quality, yet all played a supporting role to Rooney.

That is partly because of his position. Inevitably, a playmaker will draw the eye; in other areas, discipline and industry can transform the ordinary into the highly effective, but the imagination that must be shown by the player charged with creating is innate.

England have historically lacked that invention, or when it has existed it has been in wingers, whose impact on the game is, by dint of their position on the periphery, inconsistent. That is partly to do with how the historical development of the game in England prioritised wingers, but it also led to a situation that still endures, as the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Milenko Acimovic found to their cost, whereby the central areas are so ferocious that more skilful, less physically robust players are blown away.

That is why Rooney, whose skill is packed in a bull-like frame that allows him to flourish amid the hurly-burly, is unique.

Eriksson’s comparison of him with Pelé has been widely repeated, but all he actually asserted was that no other player so young had made such an impression at his first tournament. It is the Maradona comparison that is the more compelling, for Rooney is what the Argentines would call a “pibe”. The term literally means “boy”, but is used to describe the sort of player blessed with the impish intelligence needed in that role between midfield and attack, the street-wise ingenuity of the urchin.

Rooney has it in abundance. It may well be that he is the first English “pibe”, and it is entirely conceivable he could be the last. His generation is, after all, the last to learn their football in the streets. The back alleys in which technique was learnt on difficult surfaces and in tight spaces are vanishing, while players are being whisked into academies at younger and younger ages. That may be good as a whole, but the risk is that geniuses are stifled as the system polishes off the rough edges of their individuality.

And, as Maradona said, it is just those rough edges that can make a player so special. That is not to say Rooney has not at times gone too far. In the defeat to Northern Ireland in September, for instance, frustrated by being, ridiculously, consigned to the wing, he risked being sent off with a foolhardy leap at Keith Gillespie, and then subjected Beckham to a barrage of abuse as his captain tried to calm him.

Even Beckham, though, could see the positives in that outburst. “In a way it is good that you see players react like that because you know they have got a lot of passion,” he said.

Eriksson, a manager as pragmatic as his public pronouncements are banal, would seem to agree. “He has a temperament but if you take that away from him he will not play such good football,” he said. “He must be up there, and then it’s a balance whether he gets a red card or not.”

It may be a tightrope, but if England are to prosper in Germany, Rooney must be allowed to walk it.

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