‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

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What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

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9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

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6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

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5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

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3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

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What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

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The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

THE FETISHIZATION OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL

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The problems facing English football have been well documented for almost two decades. But what about the fetishization of the national game and Premier League?

Originally published by These Football Times 17/07/2014.

There was one notable element absent from England’s exit from the World Cup: the tabloid scapegoat. Following exits from past tournaments, or failures to qualify, the popular press, either reflecting or attempting to dictate the popular consensus, have not been shy in anointing a fall-guy or focusing on a moment of misfortune.

David Beckham, in the most infamous case, was the ‘one silly boy’ among ‘ten brave lions’ in 1998. Phil Neville was pilloried for conceding a penalty-kick against Romania which led to England’s exit from Euro 2000. There was Steve McClaren, ‘the wally with the brolly’, and Fabio Capello, the dictatorial, overpaid foreigner. There was Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006, and even as far back as 1970, goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. However, following England’s exit at the World Cup group stage for first time since 1958, there is no serious outcry or, thankfully, digitised fusing of manager Roy Hodgson’s head with a root vegetable.

There are a number of reasons for this seemingly new measured departure. The notable decline of the popular press’s influence, eroded by social media, Luis Suárez hoarding the news cycle the day of England’s final game and the remainder of an engrossing tournament to digest. There has also been a general levelling of expectations to match with the perceived reality of the talent at England’s disposal.

However, in a slightly perverse manner, the lack of an obvious scapegoat is troubling for the Three Lion’s and their future fortunes. It means that there are possibly just too many shortcomings to shift focus on one singular moment, action or person.

English football is seemingly littered with contradictions. The World Cup campaign was deemed a failure, yet defeats to Italy and Uruguay is in line with England’s standard performance at international tournaments. When the Three Lions face a higher ranked team, it overwhelming ends in defeat. Players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw were not first choice England players, but completed moves to Liverpool and Manchester United for £25 million and £34 million respectively upon returning home.

England was also widely considered to have a young squad and optimism remains for Hodgson’s team. However, the average age of the squad was 26, the ninth youngest in the tournament and older than quarter-finalists Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The English Premier League is proclaimed by many to be the most exciting, and best, league in the world, yet just a third of the players are English.

Football is England’s national sport and crowd attendances at games are among the highest for professional sports leagues in the world. Meanwhile the numbers participating in sport continues to decline. With such polarising elements, it is no wonder that tabloids cannot find a scapegoat. As Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United and England midfielder recently said: “What’s the problem? Where do I start?”

The most immediate issues have been well documented upon England’s elimination from the World Cup. There has been focus on selection decisions, such as playing Wayne Rooney out of position, and the exclusion of Ashley Cole. The focus then extended to the talents of both Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suárez, England’s uncharacteristically porous defence compared to previous tournaments, and Roy Hodgson’s tactics.

Former England player Gary Lineker was among those critical of the England manager’s choices, stating: “The problem with this 4-2-3-1 is that it very quickly becomes a 4-4-2 or at least a 4-4-1-1 and we end up with flat lines and people getting between us.” There is undoubted merit in Lineker’s argument. The 2014 World Cup will be remembered for, among other things, the numerous tactical shifts by coaches, and the return to prominence of three central defenders.

England’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the default setting for the majority of teams at the 2010 World Cup, seems stale in comparison to the tactical tinkering of Netherland’s manager Louis van Gaal, the cohesive structure of Costa Rica or the exhilarating gumption of Chile’s 3-4-1-2.

Rio Ferdinand was also critical of Hodgson. The former England defender said the manager is: “…certainly no maverick, he doesn’t change matches with inspirational substitutions and I see little evidence of a collective buying into a master plan for England, if there even is one.” Whatever about the merits of the rest of Ferdinand’s view, the final five words of the excerpt are particularly telling.

Ferdinand’s admission further conveys that England’s woes do not begin and end with Hodgson. The manager may not have a master plan but apparently neither do the Football Association. Chairman Greg Dyke claimed the country can win the World Cup in 2022 and proposed forging a new league between the Conference and League Two. The proposed league, now seemingly unlikely to happen, was to consist of Premier League ‘B’ teams, acting as a gateway to the first team for young English players starved of action in the top flight.

The semi-final stage of the World Cup had twenty players who compete in the Premier League, just one less than the German Bundesliga. However, none of these players are English, while seventeen of those who ply their trade in the Bundesliga represent Germany. A picture begins to emerge when these factors are taken into account. It is surprising that those who seek scapegoats have not fixed their gaze on the Premier League.

That said, scapegoating or media witch-hunts are not to be welcomed as they are neither constructive nor attractive. Yet the lack of serious, sustained conjecture regarding the seemingly negative effect the league is having on the development of English players is perhaps evidence of which is of greater importance to many fans and elements of the media.

Paul Scholes does however pin a degree of blame for England’s failings on the Premier League, saying the division “is a cash cow and it’s hurting our national game”. Scholes also believes that it is the high number of foreign players within the league that is proving damaging to England’s international hopes. “We should limit the amount of foreign players allowed in each Premier League squad. Clubs will then only sign the best, and English talent gets priority for development.”

Scholes is not the first to propose a limit on foreign players and he won’t be the last. However, the English top flight would have been unquestionably weaker without the contributions of players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez. Is the problem that less distinguished foreign players hamper young English development? Or are there simply not enough good home-grown players?

This is seemingly something of a chicken and egg scenario, as there merit for both sides of the argument. However, it is an ultimately futile question, as a cap on foreign players will not happen and it is not in the league’s interests to introduce any measures to potentially alter their product. The Premier League may not be the cause of all the Three Lions’ problems, yet it is seemingly not the solution either.

The competition is undoubtedly exciting, full of compelling narratives featuring some of the world’s best players. However, it could be argued that the Premier League is not an English league, but rather a league based in England. It features elements synonymous with English football, such as open attacking games, packed stadiums and clubs steeped in tradition and history.

It is also a free market capitalist enterprise and, as a result, the Premier League operates primarily in pursuit of profit for its stakeholders. A competitive England team is simply not a concern for the league’s powerbrokers. That does not mean these same people do not wish the Three Lions to be successful, rather that they would not see it as their obligation. The league is broadcast worldwide and as such its participants reflect its audience and the freedom of labour and capital that is at the heart of free-market capitalism.

German philosopher Karl Marx’s theory of fetishism seems apt in relation to the Premier League and the national team. Marx wrote that objects or systems, such as commodities or money or the open market system, are created by people but eventually come to hold power over them. At this stage the needs of the fetishized system or object must be preserved over all concerns.

So if one was to argue that some of the billions sloshing around the coffers of the Premier League clubs could be used to more effectively foster young English players’ development, they would be missing the point. It is not about how much money these clubs have or how willing they are for English national team to be successful.

The more money that flows into Premier League clubs, the more it will be used to preserve the current system; a system where a squad player from a national team that crashes out of the World Cup in the first round is valued at £25 million. A system where domestic players represent 32% of top flight participants, where fans eagerly expect the next overseas star to drive their team to glory and agent fees total almost £100 million per year.

David Goldblatt, author and academic, recently noted: “Like the wider economy, English football will continue to excel at its peak as a globally orientated commercial venture, but for the world of the lower leagues and youth and grassroots football, out of which a successful national football culture is built, there is more penury to come.”

England was failing on the international stage long before the Premier League, billion pound broadcasting deals and the influx of foreign players. The league alone is not to blame for England’s early World Cup exit and will not be the sole cause of any future heartbreak. However, its needs now seemingly surpass all other concerns.

Scholes does not seem optimistic for the future of the English national team. Speaking about the FA Chairman’s claims that the Three Lions can win the World Cup in 2022, he said: “From what I’ve seen at this World Cup, we’ll be lucky to qualify. I fear England are going the way of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.”

Wales last qualified for an international tournament in 1958 and Northern Ireland the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Scotland, once regular participants on the international stage, last featured in 1998, while the Republic of Ireland, at Euro 2012, had a jilting experience. At the 2002 World Cup, Ireland recovered from the loss of their captain Roy Keane, outplayed Germany in a 1-1 group game before losing to Spain on penalties in the second round.

Ten years later, within the space of three months, Ireland lost 4-0 and 1-6 to Spain and Germany respectively. In the preceding decade the two European footballing superpowers had undoubtedly improved, yet Ireland had equally regressed. Irish football fans, the majority of whom support English teams, still enjoy the World Cup. The presence of so many recognisable Premier League players perhaps offers a degree of solace despite the national team’s absence from international tournaments. In ten years’ time will such a scenario appease English fans?

England and Uruguay – Football Pioneers

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Originally published by Back Page Football 18/06/2014.

The fixture between Uruguay and England on Thursday in Sao Paulo is set to be the pivotal fixture in Group D. Both sides lost their opening games so another defeat for either will spell the end of their campaign.

However, the match will also be notable for a number other reasons. It will feature the country that invented football against the first great international team. England and Uruguay are two nations that have had sharply contrasting international football success, despite radically different resources. It could also be billed as a battle between each team’s most high-profile players, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter may have claimed that China is the birthplace of football, but, for the rest of us, there can be no denying that the version we all recognise was devised and first organised in English public schools in the 19th century. The students of these schools were a mixture of children of the old money, aristocracy, and the nouveu riche, middle class of the Industrial Revolution. Disobedience and violence was omnipresent among a large group of boys in a confined space.

The Victorian establishment were fixated with physical well-being and how it translated into living a healthy life for the country’s future power brokers. Games, such as football, would also provide an opportunity for the unruly youth to channel their energies into a cohesive exercise. Rather than kicking and chasing each other, they could kick and chase a ball around a field.

Football continued to develop and grow in popularity. The Football Association was formed and codified the game in 1863 and the first FA Cup final, in 1871, was won by Wanderers, a team of former Harrow public schoolboys. However, from beginnings as an aristocratic, amateur pastime, football, in the final decades of the 19th century, became colonised by the masses. The shortening of the industrial working week, combined with a rise in disposable income, gave forum for both participants and spectators. Clubs and leagues sprang up, particularly around Lancashire’s industrial hive, and football began spreading further south, before being exported throughout the world.

Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson

The story of the development of football is, in essence, the story of industrialisation and modernisation. England was the first country to experience mass industrialisation and through its global spanning formal and informal empire, the game grew. Throughout this vast empire, from Bilbao to Belfast, Glasgow to St Petersburg and Budapest to Sao Paulo, the spread of football can be sourced to the British expatriates organising games amongst themselves, as curious natives looked on

William Leslie Poole, a Scottish P.E. teacher at an English School in Montevideo, is credited with beginning the spread of football in Uruguay. Poole founded Albion Football Club in 1893, originally as a branch of the Albion’s cricket club. The pattern of football’s shift from being the mainstay of the elite minority, to working class dominance was accelerated in Uruguay by the country’s rapid industrialisation and droves of European settlers in the country in the late 19th century. In 1903 Nacional, a club founded by Hispanic students in Montevideo, represented Uruguay, against Argentina in Buenos Aires, in one of the country’s first international games and won 3-2.

Twenty seven years later Uruguay again faced Argentina. This time the tie between the neighbours was in Montevideo in the inaugural World Cup Final. Ninety-three thousand supporters crammed into Estadio Centenario to see the hosts win 4-2. FIFA had awarded them the staging of the tournament due to a consensus that the country was the best team in the world. Uruguay had won gold at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where they beat Switzerland 3-0, and retained their title at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, again victorious over Argentina. La Celeste had also won six of the previous twelve Copa Américas, but it was the World Cup final win which firmly cemented Uruguay’s place as international football’s first great team

The Parisian crowd, at the 1924 Olympics, were enthralled by the skills of the South American team. Uruguay, unlike their opponents, played a short passing game. Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist, summed up the spectators’ appreciation, writing: ‘They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful, effective’. In an excerpt taken from David Goldblatt’s book, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Hanot was less kind towards English footballers. ‘Before these fine athletes, who are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses, the Swiss were disconcerted’.

That estimation of the talents of English players may seem unfair, however, at the time, the country, was in a state of deliberate international football isolation. They declined entry to football at the Olympic Games during the 1920s, the World Cup tournaments in the 1930s and only played internationals with other ‘Home’ countries. When England first entered the tournament, in Brazil in 1950, the decedents of the beautiful game’s inventers received an earthshattering shock.

England, with players such as Billy Wright and Tom Finney, were perceived as favourites for their maiden World Cup. However, the ‘Kings of Football’ failed to advance from the initial group stage and lost 1-0 to USA, a team of part-time players. A seismic result, perhaps born out of England’s hubris regarding the game they had invented and one which would leave long-lasting scars. England had given the world football, but, in part due to their lofty isolation, they had been surpassed. Uruguay would win the tournament with perhaps the most iconic underdog result in World Cup history. In front of two-hundred-thousand fans at the Maracanã stadium, in the tournament’s final game, hosts Brazil succumbed to a 3-2 loss.

Luis Suarez Uruguay

Uruguay, with a population of just under three and a half million, is international football’s most successful country. They have won twenty titles in total, the most recent being the Copa América in 2011 and finished fourth at the last World Cup. If Uruguay is international football’s great over-achievers, the popular consensus has long been that England has been under-achievers at international level.

England’s World Cup win on home soil in 1966 is the only international title for the country which gave football to the world. Some would consider this a meagre return for a country with such seemingly superior resources. England’s population is sixteen times that of Uruguay, the country boasts a prominent domestic league and have produced great players. However, according to journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski, authors ofWhy England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, the tag of international underachievers is false. ‘The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don’t’.

The authors use statistical data in an attempt to explain, among other things, the performance of the England national team. Their findings conclude that England’s win percentage, between 1970 and 2007, is on average 67 per cent, never lower than 62 per cent, and never higher than 70 per cent. A consistent and credible performance but, considering Brazil win on average 80 per cent of their games, England’s win percentage is not enough to achieve international glory. From 1981 to 2001, it was the tenth best in the World, hardly grounds for being labelled underachievers.

Statistical data may be able to debunk the idea of England underperforming on the international stage, however, for many fans, the sense that the anointed ‘Golden Generation’ underachieved still lingers. The final remnants of this crop of players, in the form of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, face their potential last stand on Thursday against Uruguay. The sense of underachievement is undoubtedly felt more in relation to Rooney than his teammates.

Indeed, it could be argued, that many have given up on Rooney, including England manager Roy Hodgson. The Manchester United forward was shifted to the left-wing in the 2-1 loss to Italy. He provided an excellent assist for Daniel Sturridge’s goal, but was unable to provide adequate defensive cover for left-back Leighton Baines.

This failure to perform a tactically disciplined role is a common feature of Rooney’s performances, but, as Irish Independent journalist Dion Fanning said: ‘Hodgson asked too much of him in Manaus when he was delegated to work up and down the left-wing, something he would struggle with on a mild October evening, let alone a suffocating night in the Amazon rainforest’.

It was not meant to be this way for Rooney. After his outstanding performances at Euro 2004 he became the great hope. A boy who played like a man, Rooney was raw, powerful, boundlessly energetic, possessing the fighting spirit English fans yearn for, but with the skillset of a South American.

Rooney’s former manager, David Moyes, said: ‘Wayne was the last of the classic street footballers’. The Liverpudlian is a product of the English urban working class and football’s colonisation by the masses and perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the street footballer. The decline of playing football in the street is seemingly mirrored by Rooney’s plight.

Whereas, Rooney was once the chosen one, he’s now the square peg. He is seemingly too famous to omit from the starting eleven, but no longer trusted to be the team’s focal point. Rooney’s only escape from this football purgatory will be a starring performance against Uruguay. If he cannot do this, it could be the last World Cup stand for the last of the street footballers.

If the teenage Rooney promised so much, the opposite was perhaps the case for his Uruguayan counterpart. Luis Suarez was not a child prodigy, but he is also a product of the urban working class, as he told journalist Sid Lowe: ‘I played in the streets with my friends, barefooted. That was the way we lived’. Simon Kuper said when the forward moved to Ajax, in 2007 aged 20, Marco Van Basten said that: ‘He can’t really play soccer’. The Liverpool forward, has since dramatically improved.

The popular consensus is that Rooney peaked at Suarez’s age; however the Uruguayan shows no sign of plateauing. In tandem with his supreme skills and spatial awareness, Suarez embodies his country’s fighting spirit, la garra charrua, named after the indigenous Uruguayan population. If Suarez is fit to play on Thursday, there is no chance of him being shunted out to the wings.

Hodgson said this week that: ‘You can be a great player in your league but for the world to recognise you are one of the all-time greats you have got to do it at the World Cup’. The England manager was speaking in relation to Suarez but perhaps he is also addressing Wayne Rooney. Indeed his comments could relate to the fortunes of both countries on the international stage.

Thursday’s game will be crucial for the World Cup fortunes of England and Uruguay, a chance for their most famous sons to make the telling difference, perhaps Rooney’s last, and another chapter in their long and proud football history.

Roy’s reliance on Rooney could ruin England’s slim chances

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Originally published by Back Page Football 26/5/2014.

Wayne Rooney’s role, as in previous tournaments, could prove crucial to England’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil. England manager Roy Hodgson said last week that Rooney: ‘knows the eyes, certainly of England, if not the rest of the world, are going to be on him’.

However, this has been the case in previous World Cups and each time the Manchester United forward has failed to deliver. Would England be better served without their perceived talisman? And should Hodgson take heed the lessons from previous tournaments regarding Rooney’s likelihood to deliver on the game’s highest stage?

It could be argued that the different stages in Rooney’s career are linked to respective World Cups. In 2006 he was raw but immensely talented. ‘The White Pele’, despite carrying a metatarsal injury, was seen as the spark to ignite the so-called ‘Golden Generation’. Rooney featured in four games, failed to score and was sent off in England’s quarter final loss to Portugal.

However, the striker was largely given the benefit of the doubt. His dismissal was impetuous, and ultimately costly for his side, but he was young and not perceived to be at peak fitness during the tournament. While the memory of his performance at Euro 2004, where he scored four goals in four games, was still fresh in the public consciousness. His time to shine on the world football’s greatest stage would surely come.

Over the next four years, at club level, Rooney won three Premier Leagues, a Champion’s League title and, in the season leading up to the South Africa World Cup, had his most prolific season. Rooney, Scoring 34 goals in 44 games, became the focal point of United’s attack after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer subjugating himself for the betterment of Ronaldo, Rooney was seemingly liberated to become the player many thought, or hoped, he would become. The spectre of injury again loomed prior to the World Cup, but Rooney was fit enough to start every game.

If the Rooney of the 2006 World Cup was talented and raw, but combustible and unrefined, 2010 Rooney represented the player at his peak. Or at least it should have. Rooney again failed to score, as England impotently exited in the second round to Germany. Isolated up front, physically, and, as it would later transpire, mentally out of sorts, the forward seemed unable to carry the burden of an expectant public and a jaded team.

Which leads to the current scenario facing Hodgson and England ahead of next month’s World Cup. Which Rooney will show up? How does England extract the maximum from Rooney? And is doing such automatically related to the fortunes of the side?

The United striker appears more focused and prepared than in previous tournaments, saying: ‘I feel good. I am settled at home with my family… I feel this is the really last big one that I feel will probably get the best out of me. I feel ready, fresh and as good as I can do to go into this tournament’. A sentiment that was echoed by Hodgson: ‘He knows what a good player he is… and he’ll do everything he can to make certain he brings out his best qualities’.

Rooney’s former United teammate, Paul Scholes said last week that: ‘to get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay centre-forward. That’s your job in my team’. However, that has not been Rooney’s role in the team. And when Rooney has played as the lone striker, particularly in 2010, he has cut a frustrated, forlorn figure, starved of service and lacking the tactical discipline to ‘stay centre-forward’.

The blistering form of Daniel Sturridge, for the majority of the Premier League season, means that Hodgson is likely to deploy Rooney in the No.10 role, behind the Liverpool striker and centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is his position for United and the natural fit for his attacking skill set. When the team lose possession the player in Rooney’s position would be expected to put pressure on the opposition’s midfield schemer. However, Rooney has proven in the past to be unable to do this against top class opposition.

The basis of the breakdown in the relationship between Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson can be linked to the player’s inability to perform this tactically disciplined role. It has been well documented that the pair fell out after Rooney was dropped from the starting line-up of last season’s Champion’s League second-round exit to Real Madrid. While it was a shock at the time, Ferguson’s choice was justified when one considers the two games that perhaps most crucially shaped his decision; the tie’s first leg and the 2011 Champion’s League final against Barcelona.

In the 2011 final Rooney was set the task of pressing and tracking Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s deepest lying midfielder and initial instigator of their attacks. Rooney scored a wonderful goal to level the score, but never got close to the Busquets, who found his more offensively effective teammates time and time again.Barcelona won comfortably 3-1.

Ferguson, two years later, was therefore unwilling to deploy Rooney in the same role to subdue Madrid’s Xabi Alonso. With Robin Van Persie’s status as United’s lone striker firmly cemented, Rooney started the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, on the right side of midfield. His job, when Madrid had possession, was to provide cover for full-back Rafael. This proved unsuccessful as the Brazilian full-back had a night to forget. Madrid players targeted United’s right side, with their equalising goal coming from a cross Rooney failed to close down.

In the second-leg Rooney was replaced by Nani, who scored before being harshly sent off, while Danny Welbeck effectively stifled Alonso, Real Madrid’s dynamo. The entire tie turned when Welbeck was moved to the wing following Nani’s dismissal, Alonso now had the freedom to operate and Madrid quickly scored twice. In the game’s aftermath it emerged that Rooney was furious at being dropped, but Ferguson made a rational decision. He had a more prolific striker in Van Persie. And felt he could not rely on Rooney to perform a tactically disciplined role, in a game against high quality opposition, who are proficient in retaining the ball. What other choice, than dropping Rooney, had Ferguson got?

Hodgson faces a similar dilemma for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. England’s first game, against Italy in the jungle of Manaus, will prove decisive. Assuming Hodgson will play Sturridge in the central striker’s position, can Rooney be trusted to disrupt the majestic Andrea Pirlo? All evidence would suggest not.Rooney’s ability, when in possession of the ball, is not in question, despite not hitting the individual heights of his one-time rival Ronaldo. However, England will undoubtedly seed possession to Italy. The country’s chance of progression could be greater improved by dropping their talisman.

Paul Scholes suggested that the England management team lack the ‘balls’ to drop Rooney. While that may be the case, it is perhaps more likely that England, and many English fans, are still bound to the idea of the player they thought Wayne Rooney was going to become when he burst onto the international stage ten years ago. Yet it has become apparent that their idealised version of Rooney as a world-class, game changing, decisive operator, in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, will not come to fruition. The England starting eleven would be collectively stronger for his absence.

However, this will not happen. Roy Hodgson is not Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will once again carry the hopes of a nation into another campaign. Rationality would suggest this is adverse, but football fans tend not to deal in rationality. Rooney represents something more than just an elite footballer. He was, and for some still is, the embodiment of a nation’s hopes. ‘The White Pele’, the one to finally end the years of pain.

To fully concede defeat in him would be to admit the near misses, hard-luck stories and glorious failures were, in fact, due to a relative mediocrity at a game they invented. Rooney is still the great hope, but it’s the hope that kills you.