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Gambler who knew he had a winning hand

They gave Sven-Goran Eriksson a new grey tracksuit in the week he abandoned his ultra-conservative image. The England coach not only changed the formation of his team against the Turks Wednesday but started with a 17-year-old striker who was at school this time last year. Ignore the slate-grey leisurewear: there were neon casino lights in Eriksson’s head.

Audacity had not been part of his managerial make-up, though the makers of a C4 documentary, “Seven Days That Shook Sven”, had tried to persuade us that Eriksson is an inveterate big-time gambler. Their main evidence' Poaching the wife of a major investor in Lazio when he was manager there and offering to resign at Gothenburg after three games in charge. To many in the north-east, Wayne Rooney’s inclusion at the expense of Emile Heskey was earthquake No 8. But look at it this way: would it not have been a much larger gamble to persevere with Heskey'

Out went the malfunctioning door-crasher and in came the blue half of a diminutive but lethal Merseyside duo. With Paul Scholes shunted forward to create a midfield diamond, Eriksson dragged Turkey off the top of Euro 2004 qualifiying Group 7 with a starting forward line that posted a combined aged of 40: low on years and height but high on zest and pace. Instead of a stale little and large combination England fielded an attacking pair in which Owen was the elder statesman at 23.

Up went the wattage in the Stadium of Light, for Rooney has what no amount of age or experience can bestow — an instinctive sense of where the goal is and how to get there fast. Unlike Heskey, he also has a reliable first-touch, so those precious seconds are not lost in the retrieval of passes he has failed to control. Eleven minutes into this sterling win he almost bundled England into a lead but struck the back of a Turkish defender’s arm with his shot. Just before half-time he set off on one of his intuitive runs, swerving round Tugay of Blackburn Rovers before foxing Emre and slipping a delicate pass through to Owen, who was stopped only by the goalkeeper’s outstretched hands.

By then, the man-child had already been adopted by a mostly pessimistic home crowd. And by half-time Eriksson could claim to have chosen wisely, not wildly. Not that Rooney was Heskey’s most obvious successor. The decision to leave Alan Smith of Leeds out of the squad for the second of these two qualifiers was baffling.

The promotion of Darius Vassell from the bench when Owen went off injured only hastened Heskey’s fall. Vassell has had a rotten season at Aston Villa. But here again we saw Eriksson enhance his reputation as a lucky manager with a goal from a 22-year-old replacement. Vassell’s sprightly contribution lacked the vision or awareness of a true international striker but was rich in speed and ambition.

The only rationale for extending Heskey’s long run of fitful and frustrating contributions would have been the fear of warping Rooney’s mind or over-stressing his callow limbs. David Moyes, his manager at Everton, had said England would have to be “desperate” to push a recent school-leaver into the front-line in such an important match. But you don’t need 50 England caps to see that Rooney was born for this stage. He has the physical, technical and emotional make-up to keep him out of the burnout statistics.

Eriksson, though, had said in Liechtenstein: “We shouldn’t expect him [Rooney] to come in and resolve the game against Turkey.” He had left the enfant terrible out of the equation altogether until he happened to see him score a thrilling goal against Arsenal at Highbury on the day he named the squad. Even Eriksson can respond to a whim. Simply, Rooney played his way into last night’s team with some spectacular exploits on the training ground. The whisper had started the night before but nobody dared believe it — least of all, probably, him.

Let’s get those records out of the way: youngest England international of all time (17 years and 111 days), and one of only three 17-year-olds to represent his country; younger than Michael Owen, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Lawton, another Everton wundekind, this time from 1938; youngest Premiership scorer; youngest Premiership player to be sent off; architect of Everton’s first league win at Leeds for 51 years; destroyer of Arsenal’s 24-match unbeaten run.

Outside, a policeman was told about Rooney’s inclusion and said: “That’s good. I won’t have to bring my crossword to an England game.”

Not for long will England fans regard him as some kind of special attraction. But there remains a need to shield him from the kind of inflated expectation that engulfed Owen when he scored that dramatic goal against Argentina at France ’98. The real danger is that spectators will apply special criteria to Rooney on the basis that he possesses a kind of genius and is so obliged always to excel.

This is what happened to Owen. He was denied the time and space to grow up. Gareth Southgate intimated at the weekend that Eriksson’s England have become over-reliant on youth and potential at the expense of experience. But not even a weathered centre-half of the old school could deny that the three forwards Eriksson used last night — at 17, 22 and 23 — played their part in a substantial English revival. Rooney is a player for tomorrow — but he deserves his garland for walking through fire Wednesday.

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