Wayne Rooney may be England’s captain but Raheem Sterling is now the main man… Roy Hodgson must get the best out of him

• Wayne Rooney divides opinion but was the obvious candidate to be skipper
• The striker set such high expectations for himself as a teenager
• It was always going to be tough for Rooney to live up to the hype
• Raheem Sterling impressed at the World Cup and will excite the fans again
• The Liverpool winger is capable of similar impact Rooney had at Euro 2004
• Sterling, 19, has a constant influence on games perhaps in advance of a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo
• Roy Hodgson must try and get the best out of England’s Liverpool players
Asked what he would bring to the role of England captain, Wayne Rooney kept it simple. ‘I’ll be myself,’ he said. That’s his first problem. There are a lot of people out there who want Rooney to be anyone but himself when he leads England out against Norway. Frankly, they would want the captain to be anyone bar Rooney. This is a pity. Rooney is the obvious choice for the job now, head and shoulders above any other available candidate. Yet in reality he is a divisive figure these days. He polarises opinion. Half the country thinks England’s fortunes still revolve around finding the best use for him; many of the others would not have him in the squad, let alone the team.

Usually, the captain unites the country behind him — that was certainly the case when Steven Gerrard had the job, and David Beckham. Rooney does not have that blessing. Wembley will be half shut on Wednesday night and half empty, such is the paucity of interest in England’s first match after Brazil, and the unveiling of Rooney as captain did not provoke the hoped-for spike in ticket sales. It is not his fault. This is an England team mired in mediocrity and disappointment left over from the World Cup.

The manager is seen as uninspiring, only remaining in the job because nobody else was available, the players are viewed as flawed, failed or just raw. Rooney is pushing 100 caps; the next most experienced outfield player in Roy Hodgson’s starting line-up is barely halfway to 50.

In these circumstances, Rooney needs support. This is a young squad he will be marshalling towards the European Championship finals in 2016 — it is unthinkable that England do not qualify, when even third place out of six is likely to lead to a play-off — and he needs to be an inspirational figure. That will be hard if he is to first concentrate on winning the supporters over.

Is the attitude to Rooney fair? Not really. His recent tournament performances have been disappointing — and the 2010 World Cup in particular was poor — but his arrival on the scene in 2004 was perhaps the most exhilarating moment for the national team in almost 20 years, and it would be hard for any player to live up to expectations beyond that.

Gary Neville was right when he said last week that 2004 was the closest England have come to winning a tournament in recent years, and it might have happened had Rooney stayed fit. Instead, injury early on in a quarter-final with Portugal — and a poor choice of replacement by Sven Goran Eriksson — denied England. Rooney, and the group, have never been the same since.

So, amid the gloom, the shrugs, the wide-open spaces on Wembley’s top tier, is there hope that England could recapture the energy from a decade ago?

Well, yes, a sliver of light can be found in Raheem Sterling. Rooney may have the ultimate honour as captain but he is no longer the most significant player in the England team. Sterling is the individual who can make the thought of travelling to Wembley exciting again, Sterling is the player who could one day make a similar impact to Rooney in 2004.

Sterling is 19, the same age as Cristiano Ronaldo when he had his breakthrough game for Manchester United, the 2004 FA Cup final win over Millwall. Ronaldo would become a monster in front of goal, while Sterling’s ‘Ricky Gervais’ finish against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday suggests he has a road to travel as a match-winner, but his consistent influence on Premier League matches is perhaps in advance of the teenage Ronaldo.

Certainly, on his present trajectory, it is not unimaginable that Sterling could one day replicate the move Gareth Bale made to Real Madrid — or at least attract the attention of Spain’s super elite.

It is Sterling, not Rooney, who should grow to be the key player in this team, and if that takes the pressure off the captain, so much the better. It certainly places additional pressure on Hodgson, though, now charged with getting the level of performance from Sterling that he shows for his club.

Hodgson escaped serious criticism from many quarters after the World Cup — not least the Football Association, who acted with complacent haste in guaranteeing his job — but at White Hart Lane on Sunday, questions were unavoidable.

Liverpool looked superb — Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson among their best players — yet Hodgson rarely inspires them to reproduce that form for England.

Nor can it be said they are flattered by their foreign clubmates any more. Liverpool maintain an English core and for the first goal, the trio combined successfully in a way they never seem to do for their country.

Rooney may be a lightning rod on the message boards and phone-ins, but it is Hodgson’s duty to get the best out of Sterling from here. This is far from the golden generation, but it is not without its gems.

Posted by on Sep 3 2014. Filed under Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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