Rooney fails Wembley acid test
They had saved their loudest for him, and when the hook came, they were ready for him. That outburst into a camera in Cape Town had clearly not been forgotten. As the boos rained down on him, he provided a swift reminder of his behaviour that night when sarcastically waving at all corners of the ground before refusing to take his seat in the dug-out and then blazing down the Wembley tunnel. Wayne Rooney's relationship with England fans is on the sharpest of rocks and the significance of what looked rather like a goodbye gesture will only be speculated upon.
That left Steven Gerrard of the accused to face the music, though he had earlier been one to escape the wrath of the paying public, his performances in South Africa clearly considered not quite as low in quality as some of his colleagues. Gerrard, as he once did so often in a Liverpool shirt, rescued his team, and himself from the darkest of blushes, with a brace that saved Wembley from a building air of insurrection.
In contrast to Rooney's tawdry exit, Gerrard's substitution saw him receive a standing ovation. He too went down the tunnel with some determination, and perhaps his haste was saved for the fellow Liverpudlian whose copybook is becoming one big blot to England fans. Once their only hope, now public enemy number one, Rooney's rapport with the fans looks broken almost beyond repair.
It had been expected that fans would come to bury and not to praise, and no amount of confused pre-match reverse psychology from Fabio Capello and Gerrard could prevent their ritual humiliation. Flagellation would be the order of the day, and short of self-immolation, the Bloemfontein bunglers could not hope to escape a barracking. Even the selection of three innocents in Adam Johnson, Phil Jagielka and Theo Walcott would not be able cushion the blow...
Yet it did not happen quite like that. The largest attendance at an international friendly anywhere in Europe this week may not quite have forgiven their national team's players for their summer of sins, with John Terry and Ashley Cole both recipients of boos on their early touches but this did not start like a public flogging. By the terms of the barracking that the likes of John Barnes and Phil Neville once used to receive at the old Empire Stadium at Wembley, this was powderpuff stuff. A full-voiced volley of disquiet only arrived on the half-time whistle and even then seemed to arrive almost as a result of obligation rather than genuine anger.
That this would not quite be the expected trial by mob rule was apparent once the team ran out for their pre-match warm-up, with applause greeting the anti-heroes on to a rather decent Wembley surface that proves that someone at the FA - their groundsman - enjoyed a productive summer. The announcement of the line-ups saw the public given their chance to single out the guilty via the medium of boos. Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Rooney and Gareth Barry could consider their cards marked. Yet once a game broke out, with England creating first-half chances in a fashion that seemed totally beyond them during that Algeria x-rater in particular, a crowd of 72,024 began to get behind their national team.
While a continuing 0-0 scoreline had caused some rumblings, it was the concession of Hungary's 62nd minute goal, via the unfortunate Phil Jagielka, that set rebellion into force. Rooney, whose performance had been full of determination yet without much quality, was not helped by Capello's timing in removing him just five minutes of frustration after the visitors' goal. He was now prime target, and especially for a crowd more likely from London rather than Manchester. That he did not take it well would be an understatement despite Fabio Capello's explanation of his under-par performance.
"He's the most important player," said Capello, before pleading, likely in vain, for Rooney to be allowed more game time before he is judged. "The fans want him to make the difference but it's impossible after 45 minutes one game, 45 the next and 65 minutes today."
Rooney will be placed into unfortunate comparison with his friend Gerrard, whose thrilled celebration of his two goals reflected his own desire to put the travails of mid-summer behind himself and the team he now leads. The first strike was a long-ranger from the "Stevie G" scrapbook, the second a determined push home as his driving presence unsettled the Hungarians. This was the type of "Captain Marvel" stuff we used to see from Bryan Robson, or even David Beckham, now a one-time team-mate of Gerrard's after Capello later confirmed he had axed the former skipper without first telling him.
Capello, whose conversion in the eyes of the English public from exotic autocrat to Colonel Blimp has been heightened by the farce surrounding the troubled selection of his squad for this game, further allowed himself to be shot at in his selection of Walcott and Johnson, two young men dropped from his World Cup squad in favour of Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Though Johnson's blazing over of a golden chance presented to him by Walcott supported Capello's recent claim that high emotion had prevented him from trusting the Manchester City wide man, his presence brought an edge of creativity that Wright-Phillips in particular certainly did not produce in South Africa when asked to play on the left flank.
In the 45 minutes he was granted, Walcott provided evidence that he will continue to frustrate yet his directness and raw pace were worrisome for Hungary's Vanczak and again no worse than the showing of Lennon in Rustenberg. In mitigation for Capello's decision of two months ago, this was far, far superior to the performance against Mexico that made up the coach's mind on the Arsenal man.
The Chelsea trio of Cole, Terry and Lampard's ordeal not-quite by fire was ended at the break, with Lampard of the three looking the most vulnerable, to match the anonymity of his Community Shield performance and then compounded by Gerrard's match-winning performance. Already losing the popularity contest, if this feted pairing are to be split, then Lampard is surely now the man to go. Gerrard had rescued his team, and for the moment his coach, who was now able to pronounce himself "happy".
"We have found new players and something new," he said, having blooded four new caps in Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Bobby Zamora and Michael Dawson. "That's really important."
However, despite the talk of new brooms, by no means can anything be forgotten from the summer. To think victory here would be the end of the affair and that catharsis had been reached is naive at best, and far too convenient. A concession of a weak goal or even defeat in the competitive qualifiers with Switzerland and Bulgaria and the levels of abuse will return to the levels once felt by Steve McClaren on those torrid nights against Andorra and Croatia. They might crave it, but despite Steven Gerrard's best efforts, there shall be no clean break for Fabio Capello and his players.
OLDENBALLS: It appears that the first victim of the Capello revolution (mark 2) is David Beckham. "I say thank you very much for helping me at the World Cup but probably he is a little bit old," said Capello before the game, while still we wait for an explanation what Beckham actually did in South Africa. He later admitted that Beckham had not yet been informed of his decision, thus ensuring a media storm. "We have to look for young players," he explained to a testing press conference. "The new players can play left and right wings. I hope David can play a last game at Wembley, and then bye bye. I change it. David is a fantastic player but I think we need new players for the future."
ENGLAND VERDICT: A 4-3-3 formation, some young players blooded and a win. A success on the face of it, but those are in normal circumstances. Gerrard shall take the headlines, as shall Rooney and the breaking Beckham news, and there were grounds for optimism. Bulgaria, however, in the opening Euro 2012 qualifier will not be quaking in their boots. After all, England are still searching for a formula and confidence is clearly still a problem.