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Eriksson firm on Rooney
- Club concerned about teenager’s burn-out

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson will decide Monday whether Wayne Rooney will be in his squad for next week’s friendly against South Africa in Durban, the friendly against Serbia-Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia) at Leicester on June 3 and the Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia at Middlesbrough on June 11.

Anxious to protect his 17-year-old prodigy from physical and psychological burn-out, Everton manager David Moyes wants Eriksson to leave Rooney at home; but it looks as though the Swede will insist on taking him.

David Beckham will also be in Eriksson’s squad of 23. There was some doubt about the England captain’s participation because he is suspended for the qualifier against Slovakia. However, Beckham is particularly keen to play in a game requested by Nelson Mandela.

As for Rooney, Eriksson clearly doesn’t share Moyes’ view that the teenager needs a rest after breaking into the Everton first team and the national side so spectacularly this season. Determined not to be deprived of such a rare talent, the England coach points out most of the players will have at least six days’ rest before going to South Africa.

“I talked to his manager last week and by phone this week,” Eriksson said Friday, “and maybe we don’t have exactly the same opinion. But we said we are going to talk about it again. Wayne Rooney will be picked, maybe for South Africa as well, maybe not. We’ll decide that Monday morning.

“The important person here is not David Moyes or Sven Eriksson, the important person is Wayne Rooney. But the only thing that would stop me picking him would be an injury, or if he was tired. If he’s fit, he will probably go. In the end, it must be my decision, and only mine.”

According to a late night Reuters report from Liverpool, Wayne Rooney suffered a knee injury in Everton’s final game of the season against Manchester United Sunday and may be forced to skip England’s friendly against South Africa.

So England’s famously mild-mannered coach seems to be putting his foot down for once. Desperate to have Rooney in his side after the instant impact he made alongside Michael Owen in the qualifier against Turkey last month, Eriksson argues that not to take him to South Africa would mean he would probably lose too much fitness before the friendly against Serbia & Montenegro.

Indeed, Eriksson is decidedly unhappy about the whole idea of having to play a European Championship qualifying match a month after the League programme has ended. “It’s crazy,” he said “and there have been a lot of complaints about it from other countries. It’s not easy to keep the players happy and fit for one month when all the others are on holiday.”

In the meantime, the Swede consoles himself with the memory of Rooney’s impressive debut against Turkey. “I liked what I saw,” he admitted, “and I think he’s ready to play, sit on the bench, come on, whatever. He’s ready for the big job.

“The way he played did not surprise me but his attitude to the game did. He was not nervous and very confident. He missed some balls but, the next time, he was taking the chance again. That’s not normal for a 17-year-old boy — absolutely not. I hope everything goes as planned for him with Everton and England. Then he will be a really big one.”

The only members of Monday’s squad who will be excused the trip to South Africa are the England regulars, such as David Seaman, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge. They will link up with the rest of the party when England go straight from Durban to La Manga for best part of a week’s R&R in the Spanish sunshine.

The absence of Cole and Bridge in South Africa will leave Eriksson with a problem at left-back. The England coach has been urged by Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor, and others, to try Gareth Barry there or in midfield. However, it looks as though he intends to solve the problem by switching Leeds United’s Danny Mills from right-back.

It will be very interesting to see whether Seaman, 40 in September, makes it into this squad. “That’s a good question and I will tell you on Monday,” Eriksson said, curiously ambivalent, when asked whether the veteran goalkeeper would be included.

One England veteran who need not worry is Middlesbrough centre-back Gareth Southgate. Between the recent qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Turkey, Southgate’s views on the balance between youth and experience in the squad were so misrepresented by one newspaper that they were thought to be responsible for his complete removal from team and substitutes for the second game.

But Eriksson said he did not even know about Southgate’s supposed criticism of him, praised the player for his ability and contribution to the squad and made it quite clear his international career was not over. The only reason Southgate did not keep his place against Turkey, and was not on the bench, insisted the England coach, was the competition for places.

In any case, Southgate’s experience is likely to be needed more than ever now that a persistent Achilles problem has deprived Eriksson of Arsenal’s Sol Campbell, while two other options at centre-back, Jonathan Woodgate and John Terry, are likely to be omitted because of injury.

That means United’s usual block representation is likely to be down to just Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Beckham. “David will come with us to South Africa,” Eriksson confirmed. “As you know, that game was a request from Nelson Mandela a long time ago and I think it would be nice to have the captain there to play in it.

“I’ve spoken to David many times and he’s very keen to come to South Africa because it’s a special game and because, hopefully, there will be a meeting with Nelson Mandela — which we’re working on.”

In fact, you get the distinct impression that arranging for those two great icons to be pictured shaking hands is a good deal more important to all concerned than the game itself. Which is no bad thing, I guess.

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