England are on the road to Rio and it is a time for all the nation’s football fans, myself included, to rejoice. Now, we have seven months to prepare for the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup, and I must say, manager Roy Hodgson has something to work with. The arrival of winger Andros Townsend has breathed fresh air into the England squad and the Tottenham 22-year-old, along with fellow youngsters Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, represents an encouraging vibrancy as we look ahead to Brazil. I must say, though, that our two most important players are, and will remain, the vastly experienced Wayne Rooney and captain Steven Gerrard, the two men upon whom we still rely heavily for our goals.
Rooney, at 27, and 33-year-old Gerrard hit the target against Poland to clinch our qualification, their goals merely underlining their significance in this England team. Both players, with their ability, experience and big-occasion know-how, will be vital to the cause next summer, when we must pray they remain fit. Rooney, our one world-class forward, looks like he has regained his enthusiasm and focus following his period of discontent after Sir Alex Ferguson sensationally axed him from Manchester United’s Champions League quarter-final glamour tie with Real Madrid. There is no doubt Rooney had not been performing to his highest level and former United boss Ferguson, in his undeniable wisdom, stunned the player by leaving him out, then said Rooney had asked him if he could leave Old Trafford. It was obviously a wake-up call from the master man-manager, but it looked like one helluva mess for David Moyes to inherit when he succeeded Sir Alex this summer. To his credit, Moyes appears to have risen to the challenge. Rooney is back in the United team, playing in what I certainly think is his best position, namely the second striker – and he’s looking like the Rooney of old. Certainly, he has been England’s outstanding performer in the two successful Wembley matches against Montenegro and Poland, when his two goals took his tally in internationals to 38 and when he became the country’s all time leading World Cup scorer. Now, of course, we want to see him score in the finals!
The most encouraging aspect of Rooney’s current form is his demeanour on the pitch. So often, his play has been sullied by the image of the scowling, profanity-riddled player, cursing referees when penalised or when he felt he did not get the benefit of the doubt. Refreshingly, Rooney looked like a man in control of his emotions and, therefore, his game on Tuesday and England will need him in this form and this frame of mind in Brazil, for he is the man to whom the likes of Welbeck and Sturridge at the front end of the team will look for example and leadership. And, though Welbeck continues to impress with his strength and work-rate, and Sturridge is coming on leaps and bounds, Rooney is likely to remain our biggest goal threat. Ironically, Gerrard, operating in his central midfield position, continues to be the second most likely to score! I have admired the Liverpool player ever since he broke into their team as a teenager and, though I am an Evertonian, I do have some sympathy for Gerrard because of his failure to crown a wonderful career with a League title. It would be fitting for him if he could lead England to at least a respectable showing in the World Cup finals…it is hard for a diehard patriot like me to predict that we can actually win it. But we live in hope and I hope and pray that Rooney and Gerrard remain injury-free for the rest of the Premier League season. These are players who have earned their football degrees. For lads like Wilshere, Townsend, Welbeck et al, it’s a case of moving from High School to university next summer. Let us hope they all emerge with honours.
There is little doubt that Hodgson has “found” a player in Townsend, who has played almost as often for England as he has for Tottenham! Here is a winger who does what his ilk are supposed to do, namely receives the ball and runs at defenders, allying pace and trickery. He’s got a mean shot on him, too. With Walcott, currently injured, waiting to join the party Hodgson will have some exciting attacking options, one of which might well be the use of Walcott in more of a centre-forward role. A word, also, in praise of left-back Leighton Baines whose delivery for Rooney’s opening, headed goal, must have had David Moyes drooling. Moyes, as we know, tried and failed to sign Baines in the transfer window and I know that Everton fans remain concerned that the player may yet be lost to them in the January window. There were a couple of moments in the second half against Poland when Baines lost the plot defensively – as did England collectively on more than occasion in the match – but there is no denying his class as a raiding full-back. Baines not only gives his manager that threat, he also affords him the option of selecting a midfielder in a narrower role, thus tightening things up in the middle.