THE ‘big man’ is back for England, but the ‘long con’ is long gone.
Wayne Rooney’s return from suspension means that England can no longer portray themselves as plucky upstarts battling against the odds in the east.
That particular confidence trick was exposed by decent displays against France and Sweden – and will be blown out of the water when the Manchester United striker steps out for the first time tonight.
The England team may not belong in the upper echelon of this tournament but Rooney does. Those of cynical bent will no doubt argue that others in the tournament are more refined talents, or that Cristiano Ronaldo is the deadliest of all the players in Poland and Ukraine.
But the stats stack up for Rooney. At 26, he has 28 goals in an astonishing 76 caps for the national team but the black and white facts don’t tell the whole story.
He is a player of imagination and invention, with breathtaking vision and ability.
It is the fact that he marries that with a uniquely English brand of determination and aggression that means that he would walk into the starting XI of the very best clubs in the world. If there is a question mark, it is over his temperament and Rooney will be traversing a gauntlet of animosity and fervent Ukranian support when he partners Danny Welbeck tonight. He needs to keep his pre-match promise and keep his head.
If he does that, England have a mighty chance of progression but the events of Saturday night should serve as a warning.
Who would have thought Russia, who looked so strong in their opening game with the Czech Republic, would fall at the first hurdle before a ball was kicked this weekend? Yet there they were on Saturday evening, out on their ears after Greece had secured a memorable victory.
That is the reality that faces England if they start to believe they are better than they are. The Three Lions were refreshingly honest and humble in their reaction to the defeat of Sweden, but they must channel the sort of fighting spirit that helped them through Friday’s nerve-shredding match.
They have proved they have talent, and illustrated they are not out of place in this tournament. With Rooney back in the picture, they will have no excuses if they fail to overcome Ukraine.