FOX Soccer Exclusive
Rooney a welcome sight for England
Imagine the effect on a team that loses its star player two games into a tournament. Now, imagine the impetus the team receives once the star returns to the fold right before the biggest match in group play. Bang!
We don’t need to imagine, because it’s going to happen to England on Tuesday in Donetsk, where Rooney becomes available to coach Roy Hodgson again for the concluding group game against cohosts Ukraine after serving a two-game suspension for kicking an opponent in Montenegro at the end of the Euro 2012 qualifying series.
Rooney matters. Thick-set and with a hair weave at 26, he isn’t the prettiest of footballers. But when the ball is at his feet, he acquires elegance. He can design a play or finish it off, and he hates to lose. He is so important to Manchester United that, when he threatened to leave the club last year, Sir Alex Ferguson, the 70-year-old martinet coach, quietly arranged a massive pay hike rather than — as in the case of most rebel players at Old Trafford — a taxi.
Even at 18, Rooney was important enough to command a transfer fee of nearly $40 million when Everton sold him to United. And he was so important to England, even then in 2004, that their European Championship campaign in Portugal was derailed when, having performed magnificently in a group game against Croatia, he suffered a foot injury early in the quarterfinal against the host nation. England went out on penalties.
England failed to reach the tournament in Austria-Switzerland in 2008 but now, finally (after taking part in two World Cups, the first of which saw him red-carded and the second perform a long way below par), he is back in the European Championship, a certain starter against Ukraine despite the team’s relative success without him; a 1-1 tie with France and a 3-2 victory over Sweden. This can only be bad news for Ukraine. Well, almost only.
There is always a possibility that a pumped-up Rooney, endeavoring to make up for lost time, will incur the further disapproval of a referee and take the walk of shame. But he had a radically improved disciplinary record with United last season and most observers are confident that Montenegro was an aberration, a lapse.
Rooney for big Andy Carroll is the only expected change in England’s starting lineup Tuesday, despite the key role played by substitute Theo Walcott in the Sweden game. Walcott is best known for his electric pace and fine goal from long range against the Ukraine in Kiev. Walcott didn't finish there, as he then set up Danny Welbeck with a low cross that the striker converted with a sensational adjustment of his body that permitted a flick into the net with his trailing heel.
Welbeck hardly can be left out, especially as he combines well with Rooney at United. Indeed, an Old Trafford trio is likely to make up the bulk of England’s offense during the rest of the tournament, for Ashley Young is also prominent in Hodgson’s plans. That means one place between Walcott and the industrious midfielder he replaced after 60 minutes against the Swedes, James Milner. In the interests of balance, Hodgson is likely to favor Milner.
That means 4-4-1-1, for, although Rooney can play as a front-runner, Hodgson wisely believes his best position is as a "No. 10," or an advanced playmaker, just off the front. Many supporters hope England adopts the fashionable 4-2-3-1 formation, which seems to fill the pitch better, certainly when English players are on it. Hodgson’s predecessor, Fabio Capello, used 4-2-3-1 during an impressive World Cup qualification process in which Croatia were beaten 4-1 at home and 5-1 at Wembley — and then reverted to the more traditional English lines for the tournament itself, which proved so unhappy that Rooney apologized for snarling sarcastically into a television camera, as England fans booed the team off after a scoreless tie with Algeria.
The apology was instantly accepted and the same supporters — or some of them, for Ukraine is pricey and cash is tight — will roar a welcome to Rooney in the Donbass Arena. Given that Hodgson took over only a matter of weeks ago, a draw would be acceptable to the people of England. The pressure would be off — and Rooney could only get sharper. Just one point would take England into a rather encouraging place.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.