Wayne Rooney earns tens of thousands of pounds per week. It’s worth remembering this when one considers his appearance in Minsk tonight. He is one of the richest men of his age in Britain, yet he seems to have chosen to have his hair styled by a heroin addict. Moreover, he is now augmenting this look with a beard that looks as if it might be a prototype attempt to morph into Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull. He needs to let the hair on top of his head grow if he’s going to be successful with this bold move.
Whilst Rooney’s topiary leaves him an easy target for critics, his football doesn’t – at least, not when he puts in the sort of form that he showed this evening, with an incendiary performance to drag England out of a first half torpor to win a match that was proving to be as tricky on the pitch as it looked on paper. One also has to start wondering what Fabio Capello is now feeding the players at half-time. In each of their first four World Cup qualifying matches, England have laboured until half-time and then flourished in the second.
Rio Ferdinand’s press conference before the match, at which he admitted to the negative affect that the hangers-on had on England’s performance at the 2006 World Cup. Considering the reaction to Ashley Cole’s mistake against Kazakhstan on Saturday, it felt as if someone had scripted Ferdinand’s lines for him. Had this impression not taken hold more or less immediately, one could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a welcome turning away from the celebrity culture that has tainted so many people’s relationships with the national team. Whether they will be able to shy away from it is a different matter altogether.
So, then, to the Dinamo Stadium in Minsk. A less than hospitable atmosphere and a furiously noisy crowd. A team which is more than capable of causing an upset, Belraus held Germany and Argentina to draws in the summer, and only lost their recent match against Ukraine thanks to a penalty five minutes into stoppage time at the end of the match. There are plenty of potholes waiting for England. However, Rooney starts in that bull in a china shop, whirling dervishesque manner that leads one to the conclusion that he either going to turn in a barnstorming performance or get himself dismissed for attempting to kick someone’s face off.
It takes eleven minutes for us to get a hint of which of these eventualities will come to pass. Rooney steals the ball in midfield, and it breaks loose for Steven Gerrard to crack the ball past Yury Zhaunou and into the corner and into the back of the net. It should be a perfectly settling start, but the nerves are again all too readily on display. Passes are running astray, and the crowd starts to find its voice again. Engish hearts find their familiar place in their mouths as Dmitry Molosh’s shot is fumbled by David James, who recovers to scramble on top of the ball like a soldier trying to smother an exploding bomb by falling upon it. Four minutes later, the same thing happens again, this time with Pavel Sitko’s shot leaving flapping at the ball in a manner most unbecoming of a professional goalkeeper.
The equaliser, when it comes, is fully deserved. Belarus have been dominating the midfield, controlling the play and largely leaving England chasing shadows. A lengthy spell of possession after twenty-eight minutes ends with Ihar Stasevich crossing for Pavel Sitko heading in from six yards out. It’s the culmination of some terrific play by the home team. This time, though, England show a little more gumption than they have done when put in this position recently. A burst of pace on the right hand side from Theo Walcott ends in a comfortable save for Zhaunou, but England retain their composure and get to half-time with no further major incidents. One goal apiece is a reasonable representation of events on the pitch.
Emile Heskey is winning his fiftieth cap tonight. Am I the only person in football surprised by that fact? Four minutes into the second half, he batters his way down the left hand side and crosses for Rooney to score the goal that his first half performance warranted. This time, one suspects almost immediately that there might not be a way back into the match. Capello’s instructions are clear. Kill the game stone dead. Don’t throw the lead away again. England switch focus to retaining possession and do it as successfuly as they have done in the last couple of years or so.
With sixteen minutes left to play, Gerrard’s pass for Rooney is magnificently dummied and, with the defender taken care of, he lifts the ball over Zhevnov for a third, and match-killing, goal. There’s even time for David Beckham to come on for his twentieth cameo appearance in a row with a few minutes left to play, which suggest that Capello either has a considerably drier sense of humour than most people allow him credit for, or a considerably greater sentimental streak. So tired are Belarus by the end that Beckham even manages to give the impression of having a burst of pace about him. Steven Gerrard rounds Zhevnov and hits the post from five yards out. It’s a terrible, terrible miss but, fortunately, England have built up enough of a comfort zone for it to not matter greatly.
Four wins out of four, then, and England sit five points clear at the top of their qualifying group. Encouragingly, Capello appears to building a team that may turn out to be greater than the sum of its limited parts. The players certainly seem happy to work for him, and they have come through two tricky away matches having scored seven goals. However, they still have to play Ukraine home and away, and Croatia still have to visit Wembley. we all know what happened last time that happened. Still, for now, an encouraging performance. Let’s not get too carried away though, eh?