By Richard Jolly
The fist pump was revealing. This was not the reaction of a seasoned international scorer who had just accepted an open goal. In a friendly. Against Ecuador. This was the sign that Wayne Rooney had felt the pressure. That he, like manager Roy Hodgson, was irritated by the repeated questions regarding his place in the England starting XI.
It was a cathartic moment. In the broader scheme of things, it illustrated little other than, as a striker exiled to the left wing, Rooney was capable of returning to his old beat in the penalty box. Yet while it was a poacher’s goal, it was a timely tap-in nonetheless: goals, no matter how easy, change perceptions. They quieten calls for change, serve as reminders of a proven scoring record and provide a contrast with the untried members of the squad.
England’s No.10 is now only 10 away from Bobby Charlton’s national record of 49 goals. Until recently, it was an automatic assumption that Rooney would displace the Manchester United legend from the history books.
Not any more. England arrived in Miami in hurricane season; Rooney in the eye of another storm. While the rest of Hodgson’s first-choice side were spared a start against Ecuador, he was given a run out on the flank in the B team. His objective: to sweat his way towards match fitness and form.
It is the age-old formula for the struggling player at many a lower level: if in doubt, run. And if that doesn’t work, run some more. Run infield, run back and run into the 18-yard area. This was a very English answer from the man supposed to be England’s answer to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar.
The national emphasis on the physical ahead of the technical was epitomised by Rooney, touch sometimes lacking but doing his utmost to prove his commitment. He was out of shape in Euro 2012 but, after 64 minutes in the Florida heat, he looked far leaner than when he returned from Las Vegas two years ago.
Perhaps his station was a slight, perhaps an opportunity. Rooney may have been out of position in the second-string side but no one – not Danny Welbeck, nor Adam Lallana, let alone the sent-off Raheem Sterling – has a cast-iron case to start on the left. It seemed the graveyard shift when Steven Gerrard was shunted out of position in the 2010 World Cup to operate on his less favoured side.
Now, however, it may prove the kiss of life for Rooney’s chances of finally impressing on a global stage, especially if Hodgson now deems the rested Daniel Sturridge the first-choice striker. Neymar and Ronaldo prosper as inverted wingers and, while Rooney covets the No.10 role, there is increasing evidence flair players can find more space on the sides.
The Rooney predicament is such that he can be discussed in the same breath as the global giants and the newcomers on the fringes of the England team. He straddles the divide. As England drew in Miami, the crispest finish from a Liverpudlian came courtesy of Rickie Lambert, one at the opposite end of the spectrum; at 18, he was without a club whereas, at the same age, Rooney was starring in Euro 2004.
The older Merseysider is playing with confidence, something Rooney seemed to mislay at some stage after signing his lucrative contract extension at Old Trafford. That, perhaps, accounts for the growing numbers doubting Rooney, many of them United supporters.
An £86 million contract elevates expectation and his 2014 has felt underwhelming. He offered effort but the real excitement, the sense of emerging talents playing with the fearlessness of youth, was provided by Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Rookies whose potential seems boundless capture the imagination. Rooney has first-hand evidence of that: a decade ago, he was one. Then he was the future. Now, as he looks to see off the challenge of team-mates who were at primary school when he first terrorised international defences, his aim is to show he isn’t the past. And his display in Miami showed, if he fails, it won’t be for the lack of trying.