Carnival time?

Yes, surely, in an ‘everything’s relative’ kindofaway. England’s qualification for the Brazil finals will justifiably set one or two congas swaying – and why not? Hodgson’s team (if that’s what it is?) certainly succeeded (if that’s what it was?) by saving up or inventing their best two performances of the group stages for the consequently notably un-jangling end . As though all along they just maybes had a better sense of theatre than we did. Well good on ’em.

Over a genuinely entertaining and sometimes spicily competitive 90 minutes, a full England side did effectively on this occasion rise to the challenge presented by a thoroughly committed Polish group and their likeably raucous supporters. The atmosphere was palpably that of a proper game of footie, largely, it has to be said, because of the volume of – I think we’re talking nearer 25,000 than the 18,000 generally quoted pre-match – and the hearty defiance emanating from (if my translating skills serve me well) Lech Walesa’s Red and White Army. There was that pulse here; the thing that sets us aflutter. And god it was good to have that back.

In the first half in particular, this was an old-style ding-dong; a spectacle and a frightening test for the cardiac health of the management teams. Ludicrously open – with Cahill and Jagielka apparently only communicating via carrier pigeon – and with Townsend or a Lewandowski or two quick to exploit retreating space. To everyone’s credit – players, managers and fans in the ground – this had knock-out excitement and the feel of a knock-out match. (Which it wasn’t, remember, for the Polish contingent.)

The now local or visiting Poles brought into the thing a charge whose only negative was the predictable but clearly unnecessary whistling of the home team’s national anthem. Beyond that, they made a magnificent contribution to the evening’s sport. Including, perhaps, raising the tempo as well as the atmosphere of the game to a level that may have suited the England players: in particular the thought strikes that given the sense that the only viable mode of operation was via high octane engagement, the traditional retreat into hesitancy and plodding predictability was denied to the fellahs in white. A lovely thought that; who knows, or could know how much the nature of the game was determined by tactical preparation… as opposed to beery Central European breath?

Afterwards a dramatically shorn, former trawler skipper name of Keano again belied his national stereotype for waxing lyrical by soberly deadpanning stuff about ‘big players in big matches’ – meaning Gerrard and Rooney. And he was largely right. Those two will gather most of the plaudits for a performance that generally kept the English Disease – of coming over all donkacious and crap when the pressure’s on – at Kenny Dalglish-style (i.e. palming the bear-like defender) arm’s length. In interview, the England skipper may be as dull as the brilliant Scot but last night his relentlessly omnipresent force probably was the difference between the sides. Whilst Rooney’s influence gathered slowly, Gerrard was simply there – everywhere – from first to last. Without being exemplary or truly inspired he more than anyone delivered the victory.

Pre kick-off, a disproportionate lump of our time/airtime had been snaffled up by a certain WBA fan casting around blindly for meaningful/topical subject matter and alighting on the subject of Hodgson’s alleged bravery. Apparently the Brainy But Dour one (twice) threw off the shackles in choosing Townsend. I don’t quite see it that way, not buying (myself) the notion of significant cultural change in the soul of the England Manager implied by the esteemed Mr Chiles’ line of thought. Ar Andros clearly has the potential to be that boldest of choices but softest of targets – The Luxury Player – but the now pretty standard inclusion of six defensively-minded players plus the creaking port-cullis that is Hart allows for a certain slack in the girlie attackers capacity to protect the castle keep.

For those who haven’t got it, the inclusion of two holding midfield players as the hardcore lance-merchants in the central-but-deepish areas of the pitch enables or licenses dafter, more frivolous stuff up the pitch. Like Townsend gambolling or Rooney flashing and flicking; Sturridge loping and loosing that shimmy-stepover; the riskier, bamboozle-heavy and ideally more penetrative offensive stuff. Lampard and then Carrick, therefore, made Townsend possible agin Montenegro and Poland. It was relatively pragmatic decision-making, seen in the whole – a whole where Wellbeck’s lack of goal-threat but tremendous willingness and Rooney’s ability to chase were acutely factored in to Hodgson’s careful pattern. Roy hasn’t, in my view, converted.

And I don’t fully accept that the fact of the qualification following two goodish performances vindicates Hodgson. Whilst this may be the start of something, it may also be another in the series of perceived new dawns which have directly contributed to English complacency around the game. We remain – as surely evidenced by the bulk of this qualifying campaign and certainly by the tournaments that have preceded it – a fascinating but dreadful example of the proud fool, unable and unwilling to actually adopt patently more skilled and successful and downright necessary strategies from elsewhere. Because we never quite accept we have to learn that (foreign) stuff. Because (I suspect – hilariously) we still think there’s something worryingly unmanly about being able to twinkle or caress, or just be comfortable in possession of the ball.

But that’s again the Wider Issue. One which can only be addressed over years and following the radical overhaul of the coaching system. Being undeniably pessimistic about this particular matter, I intend to simply skirt past this one as though it fails to intrude with any relevance. (But man it does… and it is relevant… bigger, for me than the World Cup. I just don’t want to depress either myself or you by going there again this morning. Let’s get back to last night.)

For now we can enjoy – and I do mean that – the sense that our lot not only turned up but played. Played a 65/35 part, I reckon, in a bloody good game of football. And showed some promise – through Townsend’s directness and will to engage and Rooney’s returning quality and Baines’ brightness and busy-ness. Through a much-needed display of convincing collective spirit. They’ll need all that in Brazil.

I’ve now seen all manner of cobblers and conjecture over the possibles and the ‘realistic targets’ for England in South America next year.  The Telegraph even had a ‘Can We Win the World Cup?’ thing going on!?!  Jaysus!! 

I return to my earlier point about radical and meaningful reform of coaching nationwide and throughout the age-groups being substantially more vital than a decent showing by our First XI in Brazil.  Even if Rooney and co had an inspired outing there.  Yes, there is some hope that the younger guys in the squad might yet thrive, despite conditions and the likely spookily alien walk-dart character of the games.  It is also true I think that the general standard of play is relatively ordinary at tournament level – sometimes even through to the defining stages. 

So there is some hope – there is some real hope that an energised, positive England side may perhaps over-achieve in the manner of an England rugby team of recent vintage, rather than bomb out amid the usual ignominy.  If this sounds a weary sort of optimisim then maybe… that’s what it is.  I hope the attacking players in particular fizz with confidence and belief; I just don’t see Hodgson facilitating that because I fear he lacks generosity, dynamism, inspiration – deep awareness even.   These things the English game itself clearly lacks.

We’re left with issues we cannot and should not duck.  Yes England had a real good night last night.  But the football matrix here is still a shocking and pretty depressing mess.

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Rooneythoughts.

Remember that early curler for Everton, against Arsenal? Remember thinking this kid looked like he’d been on a steak diet for too long, such was his power, his doe-eyed but belligerent chunkiness?  Remember that hat-trick on Champion’s League debut? Remember sendings off and tortured bellows into innocently by-standing cameras. Remember the protection he had; so that we hardly heard him speak his name. Remember in weird, slightly garish slabs.

Rooney. The boy wunda, the cocksure virgin, the prodigious-explosive talent gone far too big for his hoodie. Him.

Him with the obscene wage/mansion/lifestyle/twitter following. Him in that dreamscape, that boob-job of a life where the appalling accoutrements of footballing princedom engorge the Scally mortal within. Such that when we do glimpse that doe-eyed boy – less though, now, I admit – we might wish to offer a consoling paternal hug. On the grounds that dumb ecstatic idolatry does not, apparently, fulfil. (Aah, life’s shallow riches.)

Hey but let’s not be duped into flopping so, between sympathy and the red devil. Wayne’s world does have the occasional dollop of normalcy – of proportion even. Sometimes I’m sure he does make his own breakfast – something hopelessly Choco-popsy, I fancy? Sometimes he gets out the hoover. (Yeh right.) Sometimes he dawdles round in his checked jimjams wondering what to do with his Sunday. But okay… mainly it’s that ole treadmill of fantastic luxury. Ordered days, ordered lawns; situations/environments/people groomed towards Wayne-friendly suitability. For running round in his shorts twice a week. Meaning it’s just not possible to stay normal.

Wayne has dealt with this. Sometimes by inspired channelling of all available energies into sporting brilliance, despite the absurdities of distraction; others – in the early days? – by not knowing. Not knowing hardly anything it seemed – Rooney being something of a byword or more-or-less impervious touchstone for shell-suited naivety. His widely perceived lack of thought about x, p, a may, of course, be an essential part of the armoury on the pitch; his rawness, his intuition being central to the Rooney dynamism. It has served him less well elsewhere.

But in fairness I think it likely that Wayne has been stitched up plenty (too). Maybe that unseemly business with a super-annuated lady of the night falls into that category – not that I remotely condone his alleged unfaithfulness to Colleen. Maybe with some of the jostling around contractual matters at MU – which did not resonate with me as Rooneyswerves and bobs so much as intrigues from a more cunning mind. Like an agent’s, perhaps? My heart still says that chavistas extraordinaires though they may be as a couple, Wayne at least remains a comparative innocent.  Who prob’ly needs ‘is mam.

Rooney moments are bound to arrive when you are The One. When Ingerland knows that only you – only you since you were 17 – could or might carry the whites to some overdue triumph for the Home of Football. (And let’s pause here to focus the you-tube in our minds towards the actual playing thing, here). When clear of the red mist of controversy, in an England shirt, fit and fearless, Rooney was nothing short of magnificent. He was almost embarrassingly easily Man-boy of the Match for what seemed like aeons; every time he crossed that line he unleashed himself with a remarkable freedom and consistency. He carried the team; he was what – 19? The record became flawed with the spillage of extra-footie concerns; public ridicule, family ridicule – corrosive media crap. A consensus developed amongst columnists and fans that Wayne’s head was in the wrong place. Justifiably.

The story’s gotten more turgid than we would have liked, these last two years. Intermittent form; issues with weight and fitness. Maybe less of that boyish good humour – that bounce. Neither movement nor demeanour seeming electrifyingly free as it once was… when we were all younger… and less compromised. But – on the plus side! – are we just all growing up? It seems Wayne is.

Friday’s drama – San Marino, yer man velcroed up with the skipper’s armband – evidenced minor gathering of the maturing non-phenomenon. Rooney dully accomplished in the verbals beforehand, just like a proper captain; this not a criticism, more a reflection of my own disillusionment with those festivals of blandness, the press conference(s). With Wayne now speaking with some confidence – and well within those crushing limits. On the pitch influential rather than masterful; penalty despatched. The captaincy temporary, we imagine, until he outlasts Gerard, or Hodgson sees more clearly the evolution of the flawed boy saviour towards untouchable maestro.

This is surely the current fascination; the one about whether Rooney turns in to Paul Scholes Plus – and therefore combines quarter back levels of control with occasional hand grenades behind enemy lines – or does he remain essentially that False 9/inside forward combo. The fact is he could do either; or probably both; as well as cover every other outfield position on the park with some distinction. But what does Sir Alex want… and what does England need?

There is every chance that Rooney will withdraw in proportion to that cruel but natural diminution in pace and alongside his gathering maturity. United probably don’t need or expect him to flash into the six yard box as much as he did 2 years ago. Some Dutch bloke will cover that. SAF being wholly conversant with the flow of an individual career in the wider ocean that is Manchester United FC, these things have been thought about and boats floated. And hopefully Wayne consulted. Likewise with England. Rooney remains (probably?) the finest player either outfit can call upon, the player most fans call upon to DO SOMETHING when inertia strikes. But is there a single role awaiting?

In all honesty we can’t know. Many of us I think could see that familiar frame flitting a tad more sideways – or less lung-burstingly forward – within some deeper, creative midfielder slot. Establishing the rhythm of the thing. Holding and waiting and engineering; rather than going past, necessarily.

Would this reduce him as a threat to the opposition? In terms of goals scored, quite possibly. But the glaring deficiency of the national side points towards Rooney the creator. He simply has that capacity to invent. Over and above the extraordinary firepower there is a genius for finding stuff; not through extravagant Ronaldoesque tricksiness but through 20-20 football vision. Through that delicious, natural control.  And yes – that particular power.

Upon this pivot may the fortunes of both club and country turn. Tonight, in Poland, let’s see.

*(Unusually) a post-Poland post-script.

There is another possibility; Rooney may fall into mid-career(?) decline.  This horror scenario rears brutally uninvited into my mind following a decidedly shoddy performance from the England ‘pivot’, who brought back memories of his South African slump with an extraodinarily clumsy showing in Warsaw this afternoon.  Please god let this be an abberation, not a sign.  England needs.