During the 2006 World Cup, comedian Ricky Gervais appeared in a skit for British TV that lampooned England's strike partnership of Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney. The 6'7" Crouch was played by Stephen Merchant, Gervais's lanky writing partner. Taking the role of Rooney was actor Warwick Davis, the 3'6" dwarf who played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi and the titular killer in the Leprechaun movies. The sketch ends with a demonstration of Rooney's aerial prowess: "Crouch" lifting "Rooney" into the air to head home a Gervais cross. They cannot celebrate the goal properly because their size difference makes a high five impossible.
The farcical bit had a measure of truth: At the time you could count on one hand the number of chances the 5'10" Rooney had finished with his head. Flash forward to 2009--10, a remarkable season in which Rooney scored 34 goals in all competitions for Manchester United, including a stretch of seven of eight with his noggin. The increase in aerial productivity was a function of Rooney's spending more time in the box for United—with England he tends to play as a deep-lying striker—as well as hours working on the one skill he lacked. Now Rooney, 24, has joined Lionel Messi as one of the most well-rounded scorers on the planet, and contending with him is job one for England's Group C opponents.
"He's not always looking for balls that lead him straight to goal," says U.S. assistant Jesse Marsch. "He just wants to receive the ball in the attacking third. [Then] he has opportunities to set a guy up or get a ball wide and run late into the box for headers. He can beat you in too many ways for it to be easy to talk about." Rooney likes to drift to the left side, which had been a problem area for England but is now manned by Steven Gerrard, a central midfielder who moved out wide when it became clear that playing him in the middle with the similarly skilled Frank Lampard wasn't working. Though he's out of position, Gerrard is crafty, and he and Rooney make a dangerous pair.
If England has a significant weakness, it's at goalkeeper, where none of the trio of David (Calamity) James, Joe Hart and Robert Green inspire complete confidence. Otherwise, Fabio Capello's squad is loaded with players who'd walk into the starting XI of any other team in the group. The Three Lions should cruise through the first round and deep into the tournament, with Rooney at the head of the charge.
JAMIE MCDONALD/GETTY IMAGES (ROONEY)
HEAD'S UP Rooney's new aerial strength has elevated him into the ranks of the world's deadliest strikers.