Rooney passes his Russian inquisition
Roy Hodgson's unintentional English buffoonery has a way of taking the edge out of these occasions.
Two years ago in Brazil he quoted the Royal Air Force motto 'Per Ardua Ad Astra' ('through adversity to the stars') on the eve of a tournament.
This time he scrambled around to locate a small pair of black headphones - "Hold on then, let me get these on. My Russian's not very good . . . They don't cover my ears" - and after listening studiously to a long question, audible to most of the room only in Russian, he brought the house down by declaring: "Absolutely."
The levity helped because the scrutiny on his captain was of a particularly unyielding intensity.
The Russians had Rooney right in their sights. The man from 'Sport Express, Russian Federation' let him know that "there is a popular opinion in the Russian team that Wayne Rooney is not the same as he was several years ago. What do you think about that because this opinion is even expressed by Russian players and Russian assistant coach?"
There was a time when Rooney would not have handled a question like that, let alone coolly constructed the response that he had been playing the game for many years, had changed in that time and "to be honest I don't have to sit here and defend myself."
This was a Russian ambush, Hodgson later declared: "An attempt to provoke an answer from someone that would be useful for everybody."
By the time the 20 minutes of playing Hodgson's straight man had reached its conclusion, Rooney had been asked to discuss David de Gea being drawn into a sex controversy ("No. It's nothing to do with me, sorry"), been asked about saying he'd changed his playing position, when he'd done nothing of the sort; and handled adoration of a Chinese correspondent which seemed to be an attempt to win him over to moving to that country.
Hodgson has not helped the level of scrutiny Rooney faces with him at moments like this because they are the occasions when he decides to chop and change his role. Four years ago, he played him on the left against Italy in Manaus for England's opening World Cup game which provoked a national debate about where Rooney should sit on the attacking axis.
Tonight, an even more significant shift will see him operate in a deep-lying midfield position for the first time in his England career. Same conversation; different position. This role has been working for him well enough at Manchester United for Hodgson to have tried him there, too, by now.
Rooney excelled in the middle against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, had a similar designation in the final, yet none of the three experimental pre-tournament friendlies were used to try him in the deep for England.
It's not as if he would not have been resistant. He likes the greater time on the ball which the role gives him.
It's as if Hodgson has exhausted the other options and found the last remaining one for him. The argument for playing him at the top of the team is now unsustainable. The role at the leading edge of a midfield diamond didn't work in the last pre-tournament match against Portugal.
To assign the captain a new international role in the opening game of an international tournament does little to sustain the view that Hodgson is a man who knows what he has doing.
Yet it does create options. It allows England to get more from the players at their disposal. Dele Alli at No 10; Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana operating wide and Harry Kane at the top. As a wise use of resources, it's hard to argue with. If it is the hinge of a successful campaign no-one will say Hodgson should have thought of it earlier.
The new role feels like it might be the one which locates the best of him. It may be a last chance, too. He will be 34 at the next World Cup.
"I have put too much pressure on myself," Rooney said of his tournament record. "I've not done as well and as much as I have wanted to."
Manager and captain are an odd couple. Two individuals divided by several generations and very different backgrounds, yet Rooney clearly holds the older man in very deep affection. He grinned at the eccentricity with the headphones and never displays embarrassment at the older man's eulogies about him.
For his part, Hodgson seems to take pride in the way Rooney will stand up and talk to the younger players. He feels he has been a part of that. Not for the first time, their destinies seem entwined in the days ahead. (© Independent News Service)