Caution -- Rooney & England

So Wayne Rooney is going to play at the World Cup after all, "injury-free" according to Sven-Goran Eriksson and primed to be unleashed on the rest of the world when the manager decrees.

That he has been cleared after the June 7 scan is great news for Rooney considering he thought his life's dream had been wrecked. It's good news for the players, all of whom will be delighted to have their best player back in the fold, save perhaps for Peter Crouch who now knows he could score a hat-trick in his next couple of matches and still lose his place when Rooney regains match fitness. Is it good news for England?

Let's hope so, but I'm not holding my breath, just as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson might have been expelling a little of his in trademark hairdryer fashion when he heard Eriksson speaking buoyantly of Rooney's prospects after the club had urged caution. If Rooney comes on and scores the winner in a potential quarterfinal against Argentina there is no argument. Rooney's genius would be confirmed. Sven-Goran Eriksson, too, will deserve praise for his determined support of a special player. All would be well with the world.

But things rarely go so swimmingly.

Rooney's right foot currently is flashing like Blackpool's golden mile with a `Kick me quick' message to every defender he might have designs on running past. World Cup defenders, Polish, German or Argentinian, are not renowned for their compassion. The best are known for putting their foot in, letting the opposition forwards know they are in town. The worst have been known to stamp deliberately amid a crunching tackle with the aim to maim. The fact is that until a set of their studs are imprinted on the top of Rooney's foot we, and that includes the medical team debating the calcium density of his healing fracture, will not know for certain the extent of Rooney's recovery. He can send flying volleys past Paul Robinson as often as he likes in training with colleagues who will be naturally reticent to test the offending metatarsal, but the doubts will remain until he faces genuine competitive combat. None of which is meant to pour icy water on news which will send World Cup expectations in the shires to boiling point in spite of England's fairly average show in their first Group B match against Paraguay. It is just to warn that it is safer not to get carried away just yet.

There are, after all, downsides to Rooney's involvement. One is that, England are disturbingly lightweight in the striking department with Michael Owen still striving for match sharpness, as we all saw against Paraguay, and the clumsy Peter Crouch backed up in the bench only by 17-year-old Theo Walcott, who has run around so far in an England shirt like a little boy lost.

The other is that the focus in Baden-Baden, the venue of England's World Cup base, and back in Blighty tediously remains on Rooney. The most tiresome clich� in the football book is `Take one game at a time.' It is well-worn, however, because it happens to be true.

Let's hope preoccupation with Rooney has not compromised that essential route to glory.

Frank Malley

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