SUNDERLAND: England's victory over Turkey showed that with pride, passion and Wayne Rooney in their side, Sven-Goran Eriksson's men can reach Euro 2004 as Group Seven winners.
All three elements had been in doubt before Wednesday's qualifier, while the commitment of their reserved Swedish coach had also been questioned by a sceptical press.
Saturday's scrappy 2-0 win over Liechtenstein, the humiliating 3-1 friendly defeat by Australia and a dismal 2-2 draw with Macedonia had all helped to fuel a post-World Cup disillusionment with both Eriksson and his side.
But just when they needed to pull a great performance out of the hat – as in Germany in their World Cup qualifier and against Argentina at the Finals – England delivered.
Tenacious tackling won England the 50-50 balls and a rare diamond-shaped midfield with an outstanding Nicky Butt at its base won the crucial battle in the middle of the park.
Not just a first-team performance, Wednesday was a victory for an entire squad that showed unity under fire and are now top of their group by one point from the Turks.
Darius Vassell came off the bench to drill home the breakthrough goal and fellow substitute Kieron Dyer won the penalty converted by skipper David Beckham in stoppage time.
Beckham, whose over-enthusiasm earned him an early yellow card that will keep him out of the game in June against Slovakia, will be sorely missed.
Along with Butt and a marauding Paul Scholes, the Manchester United trio were eventually able to tame Turkey's midfield while Steven Gerrard slowly settled into his left-of-centre position.
Keeper David James steadied the ship with some important saves and central defender Sol Campbell provided authority at the back.
But the man, or boy, that had the Sunderland crowd on its feet for a standing ovation when he left the pitch was Rooney.
The teenager's willingness to run at the Turkish defence, his skills on the ball and his remarkable maturity, both physical and mental, fully justified Eriksson's unexpected gamble in giving him his first start.
Though he did not score, his display gave England the kind of confidence and inspiration that had been so cruelly lacking against Slovakia and Macedonia.
By the end, England had only one real loser, the man Rooney now looks to have usurped as Michael Owen's strike partner -- Emile Heskey.
The Liverpool forward who partners Owen at club level has always had his critics, given his poor strike rate – with four goals in 32 England games – and a questionable first touch.
In his defence, he has always been a tireless worker for the England cause and, most recently, was involved in both goals against Liechtenstein.
But Heskey will not brush imperiously past two men from the World Cup semi-finalists as if they were hopeful autograph-hunters and then dink the ball through for Owen to go one-on-one with a goalkeeper.
Nor will he bamboozle opponents by playing keep-uppy with the ball during a high-pressure qualifier before squirting a superb cross-field pass to the advancing Gerrard.
Rooney did all of these and more on Wednesday in a performance that will have teammates believing they can also come through October's decisive qualifier in Turkey.
Midfield tactics will again be important in that game. But forget the diamond, it's the jewel in the crown that people really want to see. – Reuters