England has no chance of getting close to winning the World Cup next year unless Wayne Rooney undergoes a sea change in his personality on the field.
At the moment, he is simply a liability, a loose cannon liable to blast off at everybody and everything.
His latest red card, in Spain last week, was overdue reward for escaping the same fate in the same country last autumn when an embarrassed Sven-Goran Eriksson had to substitute him as the toys came out of the cot and he argued with everyone.
Time and again we see Rooney get away with transgressions in matches that would have led to official sanction, yet he and his managers bleat about persecution, about being punished for who he is rather than what he has done.
That is doing the teenager a disservice. It was right he was sent off last week for two reasons ? for the accumulation of fouls he had committed within a short space of time, with his fuse getting shorter, then his insolence in applauding the referee sarcastically.
Rooney failed to remember that the climate has changed this season in terms of dissent and that he personally was responsible for that.
In this column two months ago I warned that the Football Association had instructed referees to clamp down on dissent, following the shocking, foul-mouthed tirade that Rooney rained down on Graham Poll last February in United?s match against Arsenal.
Amazingly Rooney escaped a red card for that, one of many times in his short career that he has been lucky, but that sole example persuaded the FA that it was time to act. The Professional Footballers Association and the League Managers Association, were told well in advance of this season what was in store for serial dissidents like Rooney.
So Rooney must be even dimmer than we thought to carry on his sulky, disputatious ways. And his managers do him no favours at all by indulging him. Eriksson wrings his hands and says he doesn?t want to take the aggression out of his game while Sir Alex Ferguson bangs on about wanting to keep him playing on the edge, because that suits his aggressive game.
Only a few days before Rooney?s sending-off last week, Ferguson lambasted the media in his customary crude fashion after his precious player had disgraced himself in Belfast playing for England ? both on the field and in the dressing-room where he had to be restrained from throwing a punch at his captain, David Beckham. Yet, according to Ferguson, it was all got up by the press.
Ferguson fumed, ?You f****** people, you press . . . jumping on anything because it?s Wayne Rooney? and then he lambasted ? so- called experts?.
It was such a depressingly familiar rant. Ferguson believes in old-fashioned methods which sorted out combustible players such as Eric Cantona, Paul Ince and Roy Keane, but that doesn?t mean the same methods hold water today.
Rooney doesn?t need a sympathetic manager, railing against outside forces that are simply telling the truth.
Occasional trips to see an anger management expert are not enough; he probably looks out of the window most of the time wishing he could join those kids outside who are kicking a ball around. Rooney needs the help of a sports psychologist, someone who can help him stop toppling over the edge.
Ferguson and his ilk will say that?s all too poncey and New Age, but the alternative is letting down your teammates at key stages in major games.
The facts of Rooney?s short career are damning. He has played 125 senior games and in that time has picked up two red cards and 32 bookings. That?s one card every 3.6 matches, and it should have been more.
His talent is unmistakeable. He is the most dazzling English footballer since Paul Gascoigne 15 years ago. And ? praise be ? he appears to lack the addictions that plagued Gascoigne away from football.
At the moment, though, he is not a banker player for either Eriksson or Ferguson. You cannot be sure what you?ll get from him when the pressure is on.
Too much is made of the fact that Rooney is still only 19, and that he should be cut some slack. Well, he doesn?t play football like a teenager, he just behaves like one.
When Rooney is at his best, his mature assessment of angles on the field and the right option to select is astonishing. He is right out of the top drawer, world-class at the basics of the game.
And in case he really believes that he?s only falling off the disciplinary perch because he?s so young, consider the case of another young man who went on to become a truly great player.
In one of his earliest games for West Ham, Bobby Moore was sent off for retaliation. He never got sent off again.
Grafting discipline on to a great footballing technique, Moore became an icon and lifted the World Cup. Can Wayne Rooney learn something from that?
Raise a glass to amiable Freddie and England's women
I hope a few personal reminiscences on the aftermath of the Oval Test are in order before the nights draw in so depressingly quickly.
The puritanical reaction in some quarters to the inebriated state of some of the England players during their day of public celebration defies belief.
They had been on a very tight leash all summer, preparing professionally for each match. You just can?t play international cricket these days with a hangover, suffering from dehydration. So what was wrong with young men dropping off the perch for a bender after making history and thrilling the country in the process?
They were also, to a man, genial in their cups. Some professional sportsmen, oozing testosterone as well as high self-regard, turn out to be boorish, physically aggressive drunks.
The England players were amiable and approachable throughout. As usual, Freddie Flintoff set the standard. Of course, he climbed into the pop; one of Freddie?s most human touches is that he likes a sherbert, at the right time.
He went through the night at the team hotel, chatting to everyone, beaming benignly. When he climbed on to the bus that snaked its way through Trafalgar Square, he touchingly held his daughter Holly all the way, pointing out the sights of London to her.
I defy any mother watching Freddie cradling Holly not to warm even more to the big fellow.
I would have thought any stick handed out on that day ought to have been brandished in the direction of the Prime Minister for his opportunistic invite to the players to come to Number Ten.
I was in the players? dressing-room at the Oval on the Monday night and when they were told that a visit to Downing Street next day was in order, the news was greeted with dismay.
Some of them had not forgotten the prevarication from Tony Blair?s Government over Zimbabwe two years earlier ? while now cricket was suddenly sexy to the Prime Minister.
The players? reaction would have been more respectful had the PM been John Major, a genuine cricket nut who was at the Oval, his sporting home.
For some of the England players, the celebrations kicked on. On Wednesday night, I shared a platform in the Lord?s Long Room with Darren Gough and Kevin Pietersen.
Looking more than a little frayed around the edges, Pietersen told the audience that he had grabbed just four hours sleep in the previous 48 and a few must have wondered ?as much as that??
Gough revealed that Pietersen sent him a text message at 7.25 on Tuesday morning. It said simply ?I love you, buddy?.
On the Tuesday night, Pietersen was in a swish London night club and an American came up to him. A rather grizzled character, the American said he hadn?t a clue about cricket till recently but ?you guys have really turned me onto it. I loved it, well done!?
They chatted away happily for a few more minutes until it dawned on Pietersen who the American was. Micky Rourke, the film star.
So some England cricketers celebrated longer and more boisterously than others.
To each his own, they deserved all the praise rather than the censure of the narrow-minded.
If those who disfigure the streets of English towns at the weekend behaved as these cricketers when they?ve had more than a few drinks, the police wouldn?t be so hard-pressed.
There?s a huge difference between unpleasantly drunk and good-natured befuddlement. Most of us have known the feeling at least once.
And spare a thought for the women cricketers. As the bus carrying the men struggled down the Strand and Fleet Street, I was in the one behind with the successful women?s side.
They too had cause for celebration, having regained the Ashes for the first time in 42 years. And all the while having careers to maintain.
Unlike the men, they are not fulltime cricketers and they have to fit in international sport with finding ways to pay the mortgage.
Claire Connor, the captain teaches English at Brighton College and she told me that on the final day at the Oval, she managed to commandeer a television set while taking her classes.
Her attention was divided, to say the least!
Now the women?s game is flourishing. Five years ago, there were just 50 women?s clubs in the UK. Now there are 400 of them.
So while raising a glass to the men, do the same for the women. English cricket is flourishing and parents are citing the players as role models. Even when they?ve been on the sauce, I hope. And we can thank Freddie Flintoff for a new phrase: ?I was really Freddied last night?.
Chelsea destroy Premier hype
There?s a distinct danger that the Premiership title will be won by Chelsea before the clocks go forward, never mind by Christmas.
They?ve already won six matches out of six, haven?t yet conceded a goal while scoring 12, their manager has every option covered and is aching to repeat last season?s title success.
Jose Mourinho has forbidden any of his players to talk about next summer?s World Cup and if he suspects anyone is coasting, an international will simply come into the side without weakening it.
Arsenal are already nine points behind them, Liverpool are 12 ? admittedly they have games in hand ? while Manchester United are seven points adrift. They are surely the only ones who can catch Chelsea, but already Mourinho?s men appear out of sight.
It?ll be interesting to see how those who trumpet the Premiership as the best league in the world will strive to maintain the hyperbole. Stand by for a surprisingly active interest in events at the bottom of the table.
The cheerleaders of the Premiership won?t be able to admit the truth, that the race for the title will soon be over. The battle for that last Champions? League spot will become inordinately fascinating.
A year ago, as Arsenal celebrated a new record of unbeaten games in the top division, everyone speculated that such a feat would never be emulated.
After all, competition is so fierce these days, isn?t it?
The beauty of the Premiership is that the bottom team can beat the leaders at any time, right? Wrong.
Chelsea stand just 15 matches away from beating Arsenal?s record at the first time of asking.
And they?re still not in top gear. They?ve coasted through these early games, not playing expansively, with the defence appearing tighter than ever.
Mourinho is concerned more with results than style and his will is bound to prevail. That?s why he?s a great manager.
Which is good news for all Chelsea supporters and a certain Russian billionaire ? but a massive blow for those romantics who still believe the Premiership is all about competition, thrills and spills.