There are 23 English players in Brazil, yet every other news story is about where to play Wayne Rooney, if at all. FFT's Neil Humphreys explores England's obsession with individual superheroes.
It's OK. Don’t panic. Rest easy, people. Roy Hodgson has found a possible solution. Wayne Rooney can possibly play on the left wing. He even scored against Ecuador. The head-scratching, hand-wringing and candlelight vigils should stop now. Move along, panic-stricken England followers. There’s nothing to see here.
The England manager swooped at the last moment to save the day for a beleaguered superhero.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And apparently, it’s out on the wilderness of the left wing. That happens to be the natural position of the younger, hungrier Raheem Sterling (who displayed his displeasure at missing out by getting sent off) but needs must. Rooney’s needs must come first. Rooney is the designated superhero for the 2014 World Cup Finals. Only his reimaging can lead to his resurrection.
England’s fixation with the heroic superhero trumps common sense again.
Considering the country is not the home of the comic book icon, it’s fascinating to note the frantic search for one before every major tournament. Perhaps a nation raised on farce and pantomime subconsciously combines the two and underpins a desire to boo/cheer a hopeful hero, a cartoonish villain and a pantomime cow. At the moment, Rooney looks a little like all three.
On both current form and tournament history, England’s fixation with one individual is bewildering. Rooney was one of Manchester United’s better performers last season, but that’s a little like saying he was one of the better lookouts in the crow’s nest of the Titanic.
He is still without a Three Lions goal at the World Cup finals. His performances at the previous two tournaments were compromised by injuries and a lack of fitness. His captivating displays in Portugal at Euro 2004 forced the world to sit up and take notice. But the world quickly moved on. Rooney hasn’t come close to recapturing those devastating displays since.
Last season, David Moyes was reluctant to acknowledge that he threw 300,000 eggs into a basket that was no less sturdy, but perhaps a little harder to carry. The Red Devils often attacked with greater invention and industry when Moyes’ main man wasn’t around. Louis van Gaal will care for Rooney’s reputation even less than his salary. If the striker thought he was under the microscope now, wait until the irascible forensic scientist takes charge. The Dutchman will not fall for false idols.
Hodgson, on the other hand, appears to be taking a weary road much travelled by his predecessors. It’s not so much playing safe as it is falling for the hyperbole of the superhero; the English bulldog ready to fight the pain to further the cause. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a half-fit Rooney with a hair weave ready to huff and puff without really threatening to blow the house down.
Rooney isn’t at fault here. And Hodgson isn’t alone. In recent tournaments, England periodically succumb to a predictable, one-dimensional story strand; the clichéd idea of one man as savior, a nation’s riddle, wrapped in the bandages of a dramatic injury around the enigma of a would-be hero. Why go for the character intricacies of something like Breaking Bad (that would be Spain) when there is always the simplistic soap opera to fall back on? (England’s tournament build-ups are up there with the weepiest Chinese melodramas.)
What’s worse, every England campaign feels like a rerun; the same soap opera on an endless, hysterical loop. It’s Beckham’s metatarsal. It’s Rooney’s metatarsal. It’s Rooney’s ankle. It’s Rooney’s suspension. It’s Rooney’s groin. It’s farce meets pantomime every time.
In the last three tournaments, Spain’s nuanced emphasis on the collective appears almost beyond the grasp of the Three Lions’ narrative, which seems to dispense with subtlety in favour of a single-line movie pitch: one injured man, one more job, one final shot at redemption. This is England every couple of years, playing the same trailer for those with a short attention span.
This heroic lone gunman theory is not only archaic, it’s not even accurate. If ever a World Cup campaign was not about one Englishmen, it would be this one. Liverpool and Southampton have handed Hodgson a team sheet that reads like a socialist manifesto. This squad is all about the collective, shared responsibility and an equal division of labour. Potentially, England no longer have to trot out the tired one-man army routine like a Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie from the 80s. They’re the Expendables now. They’ve all got a pivotal role to play.
Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Sterling when he keeps his head hardly make Rooney surplus to requirements, but they are four exciting, exuberant reasons to be cheerful, to draw attention away from the interminable discussion on the striker’s form, fitness and groin. Rickie Lambert could even complete his Cinderella story at the Brazilian ball.
Rooney is still wanted, but he isn’t needed. For both player and manager, that should be a welcome distinction. Others are willing to bear the burden. His hurly-burly, one-man band no longer has to die on the biggest stage.
And yet, the insufferable debate continues. Can Rooney play ahead of Sturridge, behind Sturridge, opposite Sterling, in place of Sterling? Will he settle for a place in the dugout, on the bench or behind the hot dog stand? Alan Shearer and Bobby Charlton have backed him. Gary Lineker has questioned him, tactfully addressing the dilemma that faces van Gaal in a couple of months. Could the team be better off without him?
The popular line among pundits is that he remains England’s only genuine world class talent. Fabio Capello’s quietly delivered a more telling line after Euro 2012. Rooney only plays well in Manchester. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Does it matter? It’s like asking if Sarah Palin is a washed-up conservative or remains a viable American presidential candidate. The issue is less relevant now. There are other options.
But rather than celebrate the attacking diversity that Hodgson suddenly has at his disposal, the distraction continues. The Rooney roadshow marches on to Rio, singing the same song. It’s all about one man and his groin.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.