Rooney itching to lead fearless newbies into unknown
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
Wayne Rooney was 10 years old when 'football came home' at Euro 96 and all kinds of crazy stuff happened, including England winning a penalty shootout. The image of Stuart Pearce's frenzy after his successful conversion in the quarter-final against Spain would be seared on to the national consciousness, together with moments such as Paul Gascoigne's group-stage goal against Scotland, which was followed by another memorable celebration.
"That was an iconic moment for English football, and especially for Gazza," Rooney says. "I remember I was outside Anfield a couple of times [where four of the tournament's games were played] and I remember the atmosphere, although I think I was still a bit young to really understand what was going on. It was a good atmosphere about the place."
What was going on was a grand cultural expression - many would call it a transformation - and, as heroes were made, it added up to a summer of excitement and possibility.
It says everything that, in the countdown to the European Championship in France, the BBC chose to make a documentary about England's exploits at Euro 96, which went out last Wednesday night and featured Alan Shearer talking to the manager, Terry Venables, and some of his old team-mates in what was a wallow in nostalgia and mutual congratulation.
What has tended to be obscured over the years is that England did not actually win the tournament; they lost to Germany in the semi-final - on penalties, of course. Could anyone imagine what it would have been like had they lifted the trophy?
"I was actually thinking that," Rooney says. "I was speaking about the programme with Michelle Farrer, who has worked at the FA for years, and I actually mentioned that. It's as if they won the tournament - the way they're remembered for it. So imagine if we can go one better and win it. We'd be remembered. It's a challenge for us, of course and, hopefully, we can do it."
Rooney is itching to get on with it. England's qualification for the finals was perfect and, more recently, the team have won each of their three warm-up fixtures - against Turkey, Australia and Portugal. But, as Rooney knows better than anyone, the white heat of a championship is an altogether different beast and the pressure will be on in Marseille on Saturday, when England kick off their group-phase campaign against Russia.
Now 30, and the 111-cap elder statesman of Roy Hodgson's young squad, Rooney can reflect on five previous tournament experiences - the first good; the following four rather less so. The themes for the captain have been metatarsal injuries, penalty shootout heartbreak and indiscipline but it can all be filed under regret, even his breakthrough finals at Euro 2004 when, as an 18-year-old, he scored four times and played with rampaging confidence.
"It was obviously a positive tournament for myself, personally, but it ended in disaster," Rooney says. In the quarter-final against Portugal, with England 1-0 up, he cracked a metatarsal and was forced off after 27 minutes. England would lose on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
Rooney had another metatarsal problem before the 2006 World Cup that would hamper his effectiveness - he was sent off in the quarter-final, another penalty shootout defeat against Portugal - while he was suspended for the opening two games of Euro 2012. The less said about the 2010 and 2014 World Cups the better. So, have the tournaments always been a source of frustration?
"If you don't win them, of course," Rooney says.
Rooney references how it is 50 years next month since England won the World Cup - their only major trophy - and he hardly needs to add that "of course, for English football, that's too long". But a professional lifetime spent under the most intense of spotlights has hardened Rooney and he has no tolerance for sob stories.
"Is it annoying that England haven't shown how good we are? I just think we haven't, between the teams we've had, and that's football, I'm afraid," Rooney says. "We know we've got a good squad of players now but we have to perform. We can't expect to go to France with a good squad of players and think it's all going to happen, that it's going to be given to us. We know teams will try and stop us and make it difficult."
Portugal made it difficult at Wembley on Thursday night, even with, or particularly with, 10 men, after Bruno Alves's 35th-minute red card. England's midfield diamond, with Rooney at the tip for most of the game, was rigid and restrictive while the split strikers, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, struggled for service and penetration. Although Chris Smalling found the late winner, it felt like a reality check - which might not be a bad thing.
Rooney is optimistic and he believes that a number of the squad's tournament debutants can seize the moment, as he did in 2004. "I'm sure a few of these players will have that sort of impact on this tournament and hopefully, there's a few of them, rather than one or two," Rooney says. There are 11 newbies in the squad, with six of them having started against Portugal - Kane, Vardy, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Eric Dier and Dele Alli.
The fearlessness of youth can be a weapon. "It can be," Rooney says. "It can also go the other way. We're not putting too much pressure on the players, certainly the younger lads. We know it can be a real positive or it can go the other way and players can freeze, so we need to make sure we're all together and encouraging them, trying to let them express themselves. A lot of the players have probably never been away in a team for more than two weeks, and when we go out there, it will be five weeks away. It's how to handle your time, really, and keep yourself fresh for training, because there is a lot of sitting around the hotel.
"It's just trying to keep each other active. We need each other to do that and then, in the games, try to bring the best out in us. When we have got the time, we may as well use all the technology there is nowadays to make sure we can do that - analysing teams and analysing ourselves."
A notable feature of the Portugal game, alongside Alves's sending off, was how Kane responded to being kicked in the head by the defender. He jumped straight back up to chase the loose ball and, remarkably, he could curse the lack of an advantage from the referee, Marco Guida. If the boot had been on the other foot and the victim had been, say, Pepe, the Real Madrid defender who was missing after his Champions League final exertions, it is possible that he would still be sprawled on the floor.
Rooney was drawn into a discussion on the dark arts of tournament football but he suggested that they were not worth the preoccupation.
"I'm not saying anything bad about foreign players but they do it naturally better in terms of staying on the ground a bit longer and almost making a decision for the referee," Rooney says. "We haven't been brought up to do that so it's a big change for us, or a big difference for us to do that. If we were relying on that to win or go far in the tournament, I think we'd be struggling. It's a small margin which can benefit you but the other things we're doing and planning completely outweigh that."
Rooney is gripped by a familiar sense of expectation.
"The first game is massive and it's important we get off to a winning start against Russia," he says. "Everyone says you don't want to lose the first game but the difference it can make if you win it is huge. This squad has the potential to be the best one I've played in and I think the future for the England national team is really bright. It can get off to a spectacular start this summer."