When Manchester United sent in the heavy mob last Thursday to dissuade Wayne Rooney from leaving, they noticed a crack in his determination to join Manchester City.
Rooney was shocked by the anger his dismissive comments about the club’s lack of “ambition” had aroused among his United teammates.
Buckling under the strain, Rooney needed friends, but the United players turned their backs. They would not forgive their colleague’s insult in suggesting their side had slipped into mediocrity. More money from the Glazers and a failure of nerve at Rooney’s end produced the sweetness-and-light statement confirming his signature on a new five-year deal at Old Trafford. But the resentment felt by work mates and supporters will not be easily erased by the most spectacular U-turn in the history of modern transfer sagas.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill bore down on Paul Stretford, Rooney’s agent, in a meeting at Old Trafford, making an unconditional apology a precondition of England’s leading player remaining at the club. United were at once pleading with Rooney to stay and playing hardball with the terms on which he might do so. Later that day 40 men in balaclavas gathered outside the player’s Cheshire mansion to warn him of the dire consequences should he defect across town.
“Wayne has apologised to me and the players,” Ferguson told a local radio station when the volte face was completed. “He will also do so with the supporters.” This, after United fans had unfurled banners at the midweek Champions League game against Bursaspor calling Rooney a “whore” and promising: “Colleen forgave you, we won’t.”
Short of planting a new forest in Cheshire to compensate for all the newsprint he wasted, Rooney must identify a strategy to regain the trust of teammates and fans who will now see his alarming slump, retrospectively, as proof of self-indulgence.
His problem is that his recent feeble form has come to look like part of a strategy to get away from a club he accused in a statement two hours before the Bursaspor game of failing to match his own grand vision for talent acquisition. By implication, Rooney was saying some of the recent recruits to Ferguson’s squad were not fit to share his air space. This, in professional team sports, remains a complete no-no.
Patrice Evra, the team’s warrior left-back, was the most explicit in his denunciation. He said: “If one player in the team does not trust the others, he should not play in the team. I trust everyone, I know we can win.”
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, Ferguson’s closest confidants in the dressing room, are likely to have restated the principle they grew up with: that individual egos should not be allowed to destroy togetherness.
A creature of manipulation and self-contradiction
Even if the senior players forgive him, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez, Bebe, Gabriel Obertan, Anderson and even Antonio Valencia are unlikely to forget the affront. They will feel Rooney’s condescension throughout their time together. They have seen him issue ludicrous statements, first justifying his desire to flee and then expressing his fidelity to the cause, all of which is at odds with his reputation for straight-talk and dependability.
They will see, in other words, a creature of manipulation and self-contradiction: one they will feel they can rely on less. There is also the problem of his rocketing salary, which will eclipse theirs. Some will think Rooney has extorted an unrealistic wage with his brinkmanship and damaged the club along the way. It seemed significant that Nani kissed his United badge after scoring against Bursaspor: a memo, perhaps, to the traitor, as he was seen then.
Selfish and often myopic by nature, most Premier League players would welcome Rooney back on purely pragmatic grounds. More quality in the side equals more chance of winning trophies and bonuses. Simple. But even here Rooney has a complication. If he returns to last season’s rampant form (pre-March, at any rate) colleagues and supporters will take it as incontrovertible proof that he has been half-hearted since August. Conversely, a continuation of the droop would say United have broken the bank for a 24-year-old who has already peaked and may even be in decline.
Supporters are no less capricious. United’s will be blowing a raspberry at Manchester City and will be relieved to escape the stress of not knowing who the club might find to replace Rooney.
Equally, their opinion of him will be lowered. Their willingness to embrace a Merseysider stemmed from the obvious sense that Rooney would run through a wall to wear a United shirt. Will they feel that now? More likely is that they will remember his arrogance for daring to tell Gill and Ferguson they were failing to match his “ambitions”.
Part of United’s strategy this week was to persuade him he was about to make an appalling error.
Fans and players will probably feel he already has, with his disrespect. —