CAN I just get one thing straight here? Even with Wayne Rooney, England have just marginally more chance of winning Euro 2012 than I have of winning The Great British Bake Off.
You can, if you wish, paint his three-match suspension, incurred through a needless sending off during the draw against Montenegro last month, as a decisive blow to England’s chances in Ukraine and the Poland. (Yes, I know it’s not ‘the Poland’. And it’s not ‘the Ukraine’ either.)
But you’d be kidding yourself; just as you’re kidding yourself if you believe that England would somehow be turned into world beaters if only Fabio Capello was replaced by Harry Redknapp.
Rooney is, undoubtedly, a brilliant footballer. And he is, under the 4-2-3-1 set up Capello has come to employ of late, a key figure in linking midfield with attack. But his record at the finals of major international tournaments is far from great. Let’s look at them:
Euro 2004: Brilliant. Four goals in the three group stage games put him well on course to be the tournament’s top scorer. Then he broke his foot in the quarter-final against Portugal, and England went out on penalties. Milan Baros beat him to the Golden Boot.
World Cup 2006: Broke a bone in his foot in Manchester United’s 3-0 defeat at Chelsea in April but, with an oxygen tent’s help, somehow made it back in time for England’s second group-stage game, a narrow squeak past mighty Trinidad and Tobago. Sent off in the quarter-final against Portugal, and England went out on penalties. Left the tournament without a goal.
Euro 2008: A nice, relaxing summer off.
World Cup 2010: Looked knackered after a long season with his club. Stared down a camera lens and slated England’s supporters after a 0-0 draw against Algeria, possibly the worst game ever seen at a World Cup finals. England went out in the second round to Germany, not on penalties. Rooney ended the tournament with one goal fewer than Matthew Upson.
You can argue that there are mitigating circumstances here; injuries, bad luck, tiredness, Steve McClaren. But the fact is that Rooney, who will turn 26 in a couple of weeks, has not fulfilled his talent on the biggest international stage. Why should Euro 2012 be any different, suspension or not?
Well, the Montenegro game aside, he has been in outstanding form this season: Nine goals in six Premier League games for United, including hat-tricks against Arsenal and Bolton, plus two goals for England in Bulgaria last month. Then again, he has had a summer off to refresh himself and we’re only in October.
In any case, a lot could happen between now and next summer. Rooney was, don’t forget, scoring freely for United in the season leading up to the 2010 World Cup. Then he picked up an injury in a Champions League match away to Bayern Munich in March – and even when he was back playing, he didn’t regain his edge for months afterwards, by which time Capello’s hopes of success in South Africa had long since gone west.
Anyway, Rooney’s availability, and his form at major international tournaments, is a bit of a side issue. England, as a team, are not good enough to win Euro 2012. In arguably the easiest of the nine qualifying groups, they won five games out of eight – failing to beat Montenegro home or away, and drawing at home to Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Germany and Spain qualified with 100 per cent records. Holland won their first nine qualifiers, only losing the final one, in Sweden, when they were already through. Italy won seven games out of the nine they played, conceding only two goals.
While qualifying results are no guarantee of success at the finals, England will not be going to the tournament as favourites.
Nor should they be among the favourites. It’s too easy to get sucked into the ‘maybe, just maybe’ mindset that inevitably follows England to World Cups and European Championships; the sense that, somehow, the national team will muddle through from unpromising beginnings, as they did at Italia 90 and, to a lesser degree, at Mexico 86. Look at Italy, such wisdom suggests: They were hopeless at the start of the 1982 World Cup, and ended up winning it. And they weren’t much better in 2006. So it can happen. Believe, etc.
Well, yes, it can happen. But generally, it doesn’t. Generally, you’re relying on the best team blowing a fuse to clear a path for you, as Brazil did in 1982, as Argentina did in 2006. Maybe Spain will prove human after all and give everyone else a chance, maybe Germany will under-achieve, maybe Holland will go back to being the lovable flakes of Euro 2008 and goodness knows how many tournaments before that. Maybe not.
Assuming Capello takes Rooney to Ukraine and the Poland – which he will, because not doing so would signal that he doesn’t expect to make it through the group stages – the striker is not going to be the difference between success and failure. And most Manchester United fans will be fine with that, as long as Rooney comes back in one piece.
United supporters’ antipathy towards England goes back a long way – at least as far as 1998, when David Beckham was demonised by the nation following his sending off against Argentina. (For a long time afterwards, chants of “Argentina, Argentina” were common at Old Trafford.) That resentment grew when the FA handed Rooney a two-match ban in April – causing him to miss the FA Cup semi-final defeat against Manchester City – when he swore into a TV camera lens after scoring at West Ham.
Those United fans find it very amusing that the FA are now getting all hot and bothered over Rooney’s ban for kicking out at an opponent. Unless there’s a major surprise next summer, it’s the only enjoyment anyone English is likely to get out of Euro 2012.