More than a few eyebrows rose when news came through that Roy Hodgson was starting Raheem Sterling at the Number 10 spot against Italy. Not because people doubted that the young Liverpool forward would excel there, which he subsequently did, more because that would mean that Wayne Rooney, the man actually wearing the number 10 on his back, wouldn’t be playing there. Rooney was played out on the left, in a position that he didn’t exactly warm to when Alex Ferguson played him there for Manchester United. But because of Daniel Sturridge’s vicegrip on the central striker’s spot, Rooney had to be accommodated by Hodgson somewhere, and the left was the only spot left. Or maybe Rooney didn’t need to be accommodated by Hodgson, there are certainly a number of English supporters who would welcome the site of Rooney warming the pine. The sight of Rooney’s strange transplanted hair slowly getting matted with sweat is one we could all do without seeing from the first minute, but his delayed involvement would also mean that one of Lallana or Barkley would start, and they’re both elegant and tricksy individuals. Both came on as substitutes against Italy, with England 2-1 down, as did Jack Wilshere. Barkley looked lively and dangerous, moving into channels to receive the ball, and dribbling menacingly around the Italy penalty area. Lallana didn’t get into the game as much, he had less time to do so. Wilshere, who replaced Jordan Henderson, did not impress. Seeing Rooney, Wilshere and Sterling together on the pitch made for a depressingly prophetic image.
Everyone knows, and is thoroughly sick of hearing about, Rooney “exploding onto the scene” at Euro 2004, where, as a fresh faced teenager, he stormed in, bustling the ball around and tormented the various defences, like an oversized, chocolate-mouthed toddler at an expensive restaurant. He became the next English star, then we all witnessed as our great hope became the player who didn’t score or assist a goal at a World Cup until today. Then Wilshere, and his fractured relationship with the national squad. He’d been labelled as “the future” of England by Fabio Capello after an excellent 2010-11 season with Arsenal, at just 18 years old. When he was ruled out of the 2012 Euros with an ankle injury (that also stopped him playing a single game for his club) he was plastered all tube stations, with the slogan “Come back for club. Prove it for country”. Yet, Wilshere in the 3 seasons since, hasn’t really proved it for neither club nor country, a sort of spluttering firework of a player that has been cut down by bad luck, a loose temper, and a body prone to impairment.
So Sterling, at 19, and coming off a remarkable season for Liverpool, is following the trend. The public scrutiny on English starlets, the media hype, the pressure placed upon them is constantly blamed for the inevitable burn out, and surely it contributes to problem. But it’s a quandary; are we to shrug off Sterling’s performance against Italy, not publicly praise his flitting, slightly dainty brilliance, and to hold him back from his deserved limelight just to protect him from the ruinous destiny of the English starlet? That would doubtless cause other issues. Hype isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it only backfires when it eclipses the actual ability of the player, and expectations become so inflated as to be unfounded. And when youngsters dazzle so early in their careers, it can be nearly impossible to constantly replicate it again and again, under more pressure each time. Certainly Rooney has struggled when turned to at the crucial moments for England since 2004.
Obviously, Wilshere has time to become the star player for England and Arsenal that we all want/expect him to be, he’s only 22. Hopefully the rest of his tournament is more fruitful than his cameo against Italy. Rooney has grown from that irrepressible, teenage, potato-faced menace into an immensely successful player, but not quite the superstar he was destined to become. Sterling is so exciting, and looked frighteningly at home in Manaus. His pass to release Rooney to cross for the equaliser was sublime. He will be known to Costa Rica and Uruguay as one of England’s chief threats in these Finals now (not that Luis Suarez wouldn’t have already known). So in the next game, as Sterling sings the national anthem, he might want to glance down the line at Rooney, and then over to the bench at Wilshere, and think to himself “History doesn’t have to repeat itself”. The English public should do the same.