On Saturday afternoon the whole nation, while not wishing injury on anyone, might have breathed a sigh of relief that the most goal-shy, undisciplined striker of England’s world cup qualifying campaign was unlikely to play more than a cameo role in this summer’s finals tournament. Instead the reaction has been more what you’d expect if the government announced all English telephone codes were changing at the end of the week. Such is the importance placed on the involvement of one single 20 year old to our chances of winning the trophy for the second time many already dismiss hope altogether without him.
Sven took less than 24 hours to announce he was taking Wayne anyway, but world cup history in general, and ours in particular, suggests that including a key player already nursing an injury is unlikely to end in a dance. Memories persist of Kevin Keegan glancing a vital header wide against Spain in 1982, Bryan Robson clutching his shoulder in agony in 1986 and in the last world cup David Beckham’s below par performances blamed on a less than full recovery from… a broken metatarsal.
Although goals such as Michael Owen’s against Argentina in 1998 provide the golden moments replayed time and again for years afterwards it’s more often boring old defensive solidity that actually propels a team to the later stages of a world cup and we haven’t conceded more than one goal in a competitive match for almost two years.
Furthermore what the hand-wringing ignores is that Rooney failed to find the net in any of the seven qualifiers in which he played. Yet somehow we reached the finals with a game to spare when Frank Lampard’s penalty beat Austria, a game Rooney was sitting out thanks to a booking acquired when he lost his cool during England’s defeat to Northern Ireland. Indeed Lampard was England’s leading scorer in qualifying with five goals from ten appearances and the other four weren’t penalties. Michael Owen managed three in nine and of those only the winner away to Azerbaijan really mattered. No other striker scored.
In contrast, Lampard’s midfield colleagues chipped in with six more goals, distributed equally between David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole of Chelsea. Cole broke increasingly tense deadlocks against both Northern Ireland and Wales and the manner of his championship clinching strike against Manchester United on Saturday suggests that a talent as precocious as Rooney’s could be poised to take the reins of the England bandwagon, crucially having learned the kind of discipline and focus essential when the world cup final is within reach.
Maybe Sven's clutching at that 1982 Spain game for some comfort. Keegan, a goalscorer, was not match sharp enough when his moment flashed in front of him, but attacking midfielder Trevor Brooking, also joining the match after a long injury, created chances and but for a world-class save could have put England through.
That year West Germany progressed to the semi-finals at our expense where their talisman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, struggling throughout the tournament with a thigh injury, finally made a telling contribution with a vital goal. If the backbone of our team can get us that far, perhaps Rooney’s moment of destiny will have arrived after all.
Photo via moostive's Flickr stream.