Sir Alex Ferguson always argues that control is achievable only through success. Winning trophies bestows power. So now we see a struggle between 11 Premier League titles and two European Cups and a morose 24-year-old who is at present unable to control the ball when it reaches him in a home game against West Bromwich Albion.
Statistics demonstrate that neither Manchester United nor England would have been much worse off had Wayne Rooney stayed at home. A player who used to excoriate teammates for lack of industry (shades of Roy Keane) is now a passenger himself. By any objective definition Rooney has detached himself from the great collective effort that distinguishes Ferguson’s teams.
So far attention has been locked on his poor form and questionable fitness. With the news from his camp that Rooney is not seeking to renew his United contract when it expires in the summer of 2012, the gaze shifts to questions of attitude.
Supporters halt the pub debate about “what’s eating Wazza” and observe an unpalatable truth. Rooney, we discover, would rather be somewhere else.
This is the point where the most gifted English footballer since Paul Scholes or Paul Gascoigne steps into the light to be judged. No longer can he hide behind turmoil at home, knocks and strains that date back to his injury at Bayern Munich in March or Ferguson’s supposed hard line on drinking, smoking and urinating in the street. Victim-status is denied to a footballer who lopes around the pitch and elects not to stay and fight for his place, pursuing instead a huge money move to Spain or even Manchester City.
This unilateral declaration of war hands the moral advantage to Ferguson. For the decision to be announced in this way is a violation of protocol. Ferguson can say he has protected Rooney through many scrapes and scraps only to have his star player go awol on him just as United have started the season slowly and desperately need his goals. After eight games they were already five points behind Chelsea.
A boisterous, barnstorming Rooney, who returned from the World Cup reinvigorated, would be a grievous loss to last season’s Premier League runners-up. But the listless figure who muttered “I don’t know” in the Wembley mixed zone when asked why Ferguson had said he was carrying an ankle injury starts to look more like an agent provocateur of the sort the United manager has purged many times down the years.
There remains time, of course, for these two combustible characters to lock antlers, purge resentments and unite once more after an hour or two in a locked room. But the odds are against it. Their relationship is speeding to a sad end.
When Rooney signed from Everton for £27-million in September 2004, Ferguson identified him as the kind of rough-hewn starlet on whom he might exert paternal influence. The theory was that Rooney, a passionate Evertonian, was really a classic Manchester United player. He just didn’t know it yet.
Ferguson is always on the look-out for players who will carry his own spiritual torch. The young United footballer must embrace the team’s socialist ethic and obey the manager. Rooney went along with this for as long as it suited him but reverted to outsider status when his relationship with Ferguson fractured and the scent of a bigger salary wafted past his nose.
Last weekend’s escalation will be written up as football’s Last Conflict.
Some will even frame it as the greatest power struggle of Ferguson’s career. Keane was crunching to a halt and had become poisonously dismissive of some of his colleagues when Ferguson ran him out of town. Ruud van Nistelrooy too had become disruptive. David Beckham was replaced in the number seven shirt by Cristiano Ronaldo: an upgrade. Rooney is only 24 and was bought to be a United player for life. He is the one dictating events.
For Ferguson the timing could be no worse. United have surrendered two-goal leads against Everton and West Brom. A run of mediocre results is bound to re-ignite fan hostility to the Glazer family, with their mountain of leveraged debt.
Ferguson and David Gill, the United chief executive, will know Rooney’s flounce is bound to be confused in some minds with the Glazer problem. They have spent more than a year reassuring supporters that a lack of “value” in the market has kept most of the £80-million from Ronaldo’s sale to Real Madrid on ice. Now this.
If Rooney leaves there will be a hue and cry to spend the £50-million they would expect to receive for him straight away on a proven world-class striker.
In retrospect the renewed faith invested by Ferguson in Dimitar Berbatov from the start of the season points to longstanding uncertainty about Rooney’s intentions. His indiscipline off the pitch alerted the whole of football to the likelihood that he will be a busted flush by 30: hence his own urge to chase the dollar now, while he still can.
The ruinous modern cult of celebrity works in Rooney’s favour because there will be United supporters who persuade themselves there can be no life without him and his loss would lead straight to perdition. On the other hand there is a competing desire to see the authority of the manager defended at all costs. Ferguson and Arsène Wenger are its two custodians.
The mantra that a great football club is always bigger than any individual was asserted by Wenger in the cases of Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Mathieu Flamini and most obviously Thierry Henry.
In an interview with the Observer this year Ferguson said of Rooney: “He’s a one-off in terms of the modern type of fragile player we’re getting today, cocooned by their agents, mothers and fathers, psychologists, welfare officers. Rooney’s a cut to the old days.” He might not say this now. He also said: “What we’re seeing now is a terror of a player.” Terror still sounds right. —