A matter of inches, a goal post’s exact width to be precise, was the difference between Wayne Rooney becoming an England hero against Italy on Saturday night. Unsurprisingly, he’s now been labelled fairly unanimously as the Three Lions’ biggest, most overpaid and underperforming, zero.

Alan Smith of Arsenal and Sky Sports fame believes the Manchester United star should now be dropped along with Liverpool’s Glen Jonhson, the Daily Mail have described his performance as ‘underwhelming’ and massaged the wound with a plethora of salt by dubbing his shanked corner ‘the worst ever’ (not just England’s worst ever, but quite ridiculously, football’s worst ever), and the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward is now questioning Rooney’s ‘relevance’ to the England cause.

It’s interesting how split seconds can quickly define entire narratives. Not that Rooney’s performance was particularly pleasing against Azzurri, not that the his crucial miss on the hour mark should be instantly forgiven.

The 28 year-old is the current England team’s most iconic player and the best-paid player in Premier League history. With either side of the goal at his mercy, the ball just within the realms of the penalty box and Italy’s Salvatore Sirigu completely sold, letting such a glorious, unchallenging opportunity to equalise whistle past the near post is nigh-on-inexcusable at World Cup level.

But let us consider the alternative for just a moment. Let us flirt with the futile possibilities of ifs and buts. Let us advocate devilishly. If Rooney’s ill-fated strike had veered into England’s preferred side of the post, he would have ended the evening as the Three Lions’ hero, with every beer-soaked England fan up and down the country singing his name along the early-morning walk home from their favourite drinking holes.

Although the intrinsic, driven performance of Raheem Sterling is duly noted, one goal and one assist – that exceptional far post cross to Daniel Sturridge after 37 minutes – would have made the United forward, by default, England’s Man of the Match. Any criticism of his limited overall contribution from the left-hand side would have been entirely forgotten – rather, Rooney would have been heaped with praise for his ability to provide result-determining quality whilst undertaking a role for the sake of the team that doesn’t lend itself to his more natural strengths.

But the combination of one skewed shot and one disappointing result from a fixture we were never likely to win is all the ammunition the British press needs to start a witch hunt, as if England would have beaten the Italians if Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley or Jack Wilshere were on the pitch instead, all of whom boast a combined record of just one goal in 25 appearances for the Three Lions.

Yet Steven Gerrard’s performance against the Azzurri was equally as uninspiring. The 34 year-old was as consistent on the ball as ever, but over the course of 90 minutes had relatively little impact on the match itself. He actually recorded fewer touches of the ball, one less shot and only seven more passes than Glen Johnson. Hardly what you’d expect from an England captain and our most in-form midfielder during an opening World Cup fixture.

Likewise, questions have to be asked of Joe Hart for Italy’s second goal, and the entirety of England’s defence for both.

Perhaps we expect more from Wazza Roo. After all, he is the only England player who can stake a claim for being truly world class whilst amid his peak years. After all, this is the Premier League’s most lucratively-paid player of all time, and a forward who has won five titles with Manchester United. Many felt that considering the lukewarm tone of the 28 year-old’s Three Lions career thus far, a committed and clinical performance against Italy was a timely opportunity for redemption.

I’d subscribe to that theory too – the Italy match was a fantastic opportunity for Rooney to hit back at his wealth of critics, whose numbers have multiplied like heated yeast since the end of the Premier League season.

But the England international has always been a player who takes a while to get going; Sir Alex Ferguson often remarked of Rooney’s limited sharpness unless he’s playing bi-weekly football, and the cliché that his scoring form tends to improve towards the midseason-mark is no coincidental misnomer.  Furthermore, striking an ideal equilibrium between quality, age and experience, he is still by far England’s most threatening individual entity.

Many will feel Three Lions managers have overlooked soft international performances from Rooney only too often in the past,  but he surely deserves the courtesy of featuring in all three of England’s group games before he’s made into public enemy No.1. Judging him on a single performance, where he played in a significantly less influential position but still almost produced the quality required to earn England a point, is nothing short of scape-goating.

But perhaps that is England’s eternal curse – whilst our young players impress and delight, free from the pressures of a nation’s expectations, it is those we feel we deserve more from that we are most prepared to blame.

The Magic Sponge