Manchester United fan and editor in absentia Gav Reilly takes his life into his hands and argues that Sir Alex Ferguson might have finally gone a step too far in disowning Wayne Rooney so publicly…
Amid his press conference today – at which he unceremoniously laid the boot into Wayne Rooney and essentially said the striker was turning his back on a club that had made him a star – Sir Alex Ferguson said one unusual thing, a statement of the kind he rarely – if ever – makes.
Speaking of Saturday’s 2-2 Premier League draw – a game in which Rooney-less United lost a 2-0 lead, and where he eventually deployed his best striker on the left wing – Ferguson said:
What we saw on Saturday was unacceptable. The game gets to 2-2, and the fans start singing for Rooney.
In attempting to portray Wayne Rooney as a Judas, Alex Ferguson made a gesture that might (in this writer’s opinion, at least) have driven a wedge between himself and the club’s supporters of the sort he might not have expected.
Alex Ferguson has always been a hard-headed manager. Manchester United fans know full well that players who cross the boss rarely get a chance to apologise once Old Trafford’s revolving doors boot them so viciously from the stadium. It’s happened with David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo before Rooney: anger the boss and you’ll go. This is megabucks Manchester United® we’re talking about: if you don’t want to toe the managerial line, there are millions who’ll queue up to take your place – and dozens of replacements we can afford. If your surname is longer, by the way, we’ll prefer you: we get paid to print replica shirts by the letter.
There’s obviously only one problem with this reality: it’s not one in which Manchester United live any more.
It’s a Rich Man’s World
The years since the summer of 2004 – the year Rooney joined Manchester United from Everton – have not been kind to Manchester United’s bank balances. United ended its 15-year stint on the London Stock Exchange when Malcolm Glazer bought out John Magnier and JP McManus’s combined stake of 28.7% in the club and took overall control of Manchester United Football Club Plc in 2005.
That acquisition came with an £800m price tag – money Glazer and his family did not have, borrowed, and then transferred over to the club. Manchester United, a club without any debt at all until the summer of 2005, is now (at least) £716m in debt, a figure that rises by about £45m in bond yields each year.
But let’s park that for a moment. Here (in the order they departed) are some players who have fallen foul of Alex Ferguson:
Jaap Stam: Sold 2001, after writing about his own life in his own autobiography. (What a horrible thing to do, right?). United win nothing the following year, but buy Rio Ferdinand the following summer for a British transfer record. Life goes on.
David Beckham: Too much of a celebrity. Sold 2003. Club nonchalantly buys Cristiano Ronaldo for £12.24m a few weeks later. Ends up grooming the best player on the planet while Beckham fails to match his earlier success, winning just one league title compared to the six won at Old Trafford.
Ruud van Nistelrooy: “Bigger than the club”. Sold 2006. Not missed; club survived with Ronaldo and Rooney, both of whom were blossoming while his United career began to wane.
Cristiano Ronaldo: £80m? Yes please. Sure, it’s fine. We’ve got Wayne Rooney, and this Berbatov fella might turn out okay, we swear.
As time went on, United became less and less willing (and less and less able) to splash out on a big player to replace an exiting one. Ruud van Nistelrooy, as well as having fallen foul of the boss, was genuinely becoming surplus to requirements. Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, became a sacrificial lamb at the altar of Red Football Ltd bondholders as much as an investment.
It’s on Ronaldo that a point is worth mulling over. Most clubs, when finding themselves splashing around with a world record transfer fee in their pockets (especially when it’s paid up front in cash, a payment scheme that never happens), go wild. Buy a few players, invest it, turn it into something useful. United – completely out of the manager’s hands, a situation he is deep down loathe to admit – spent it on paying down the 2009 interest for their loans, and spent a fifth of their windfall on Antonio Valencia. No offence to Valencia, but Cristiano Ronaldo he ain’t. (Javier Hernandez might be, but he’ll need a few years.)
All of which makes Ferguson’s row with Wayne Rooney – who hasn’t developed a superstar ego, or outgrown the club – an unprecedented one.
Wayne Rooney is quite obviously unhappy: his shoulders have been almost perpetually sunken, half in sulk and half in dejection, for a few months. His World Cup was rotten, his personal life is quite obviously on the rocks, and things in general could be going better for him. One might even surmise that, given his notorious fussy sleeping requirements (he is said to require the steady sound of a vacuum cleaner to lull him off to sleep, and to have slept on the ground mid-aisle on the plane to South Africa), having an 11-month-old son may be contributing to his crankiness.
But to say that this unhappiness is all down to how he has been treated at United, or how that career has gone, makes the mind boggle. First of all, his off-the-boil form is not exclusive to United: having had a full six weeks away from the club during the summer, on a stage upon which a Big Match Player usually thrives, he did nothing of note (except, of course, become so annoyed that he had a go at his country’s supporters). On subsequent international breaks – a chance where your average unhappy player might revel in a change of scene – he has done little more; the drooped shoulders have only managed one goal for England in 13 unlucky months.
One begins to sense that even though (as we are now told) he wanted out as long ago as August, Wayne Rooney isn’t fed up with life at Manchester United: he’s fed up with life as a footballer. His getaways with England have been far from fruitful; his personal life is tough; he has struggled to get over a dip in his form, and has been (genuinely!) hampered by a series of ankle injuries that began late last season. (This is a player, don’t forget, who has a history of struggling to accept when he is not at the peak of his physical powers.)
If Wayne Rooney had actively wanted out of the club for the last two months, all of the current frustrations with the management would have come to a head before last week. Remember that Rooney was starting every game, apparently enjoying his manager’s full confidence, before his personal infidelities hit the headlines – and that Ferguson opted to save him from the intense mockery he would have gotten from Everton fans by giving him some time off. United fans know that Hell hath no fury like an angry Scotsman, and United’s chief agité is hardly likely to cocoon a player he is supposedly on poor terms with.
Plus, when was the last time anyone heard of a player who tried to get a transfer by playing badly? If Wayne Rooney wanted to be snapped up by another team, his handsomely-paid advisers would happily remind him that there are fewer shop windows that attract more passers-by than a packed and rapturous Old Trafford.
Eloi, Eloi… Lama sabachthani?
One of Alex Ferguson’s most admirable traits when he is entrusted with a young career is shepherding that young soul through to adulthood and maturity. He is a man who personally posted bail for Roy Keane; a man who became a second father to the generation of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the Nevilles; a man who (it is said) once considered signing Paul Gascoigne, feeling a player of his gifts simply needed someone to look after him. He is a man who regularly advocates that his players get married – on the proviso, we assume, that they remain committed to it – believing that stability in ones personal life leads to reliability on the pitch.
Wayne Rooney was a boy who had the world at his feet – a boy who went from rags to riches and brought his childhood sweetheart along with him, and who scored a hat trick on his debut for one of the world’s biggest teams. A blip like this is a foreign experience to him – and one that goes fundamentally against his own sense of identity. He has only ever known himself as a footballer at the peak of his powers; now he is off-form, not just professionally, but personally too. Everything the golden boy touches is turning to shit.
What Wayne Rooney needs now, more than ever, is a father figure – but the man best placed to offer it – and the man who firmly believes in the power of a guiding hand – is apparently happy to wage a propaganda war against him.
A fundamental part of Wayne Rooney’s rehabilitation will be finding form on the pitch. Frustrating as that will be for United fans fed up with their side’s newfound impotence, this means giving him every chance to work through it – to get it out of his proverbial system. Conveniently telling a media scrum that his side’s most talented player has been stretchered off in training that morning (as luck/fate/fiction would have it, with an ankle injury), without any apparent concern for his physical welfare, will not help – particularly when, no doubt, a sulky Wayne Rooney will somehow find his way in front of a camera tomorrow showing no signs of his alleged physical malaise.
Replacements… easy, right?
But let’s say this whole process comes to its inevitable conclusion, and Wayne Rooney is sold in January (it will be January if it happens; waiting until July will cost United far too much money in terms of potential resale value and wages). Who steps up then? Unlike when Stam, Beckham or Van Nistelrooy were sold, there is no replacement waiting. Nor, crucially, is there the money to pay for one.
Ferguson’s excuse for not spending this summer was that there was no value to be had on the transfer market – and why should he spend the club’s money on players who were overhyped and overpriced? A sage excuse, it would appear. Until we consider that Wayne Rooney (apparently) told United he wanted out in early August – almost a month before the transfer window closed. Assuming Ferguson was telling the truth about the reason he wasn’t spending, he would have privately known he had a few weeks to go and find a top-class attacking player to bolster the squad’s attacking options. But, of course, there was no talent worth buying.
Let’s just casually ignore the fact that Real Madrid managed to get Mesut Özil for £13m in mid-August, beating off other suitors that apparently included Manchester United.
It is a lamentable fact for United fans that Ferguson has never mastered the art of the transfer market in the same way that Arsene Wenger has. There are few players out there who will become a Wayne Rooney, and those who will are expensive. Sadly, Manchester United can afford neither to lose Wayne Rooney, nor to replace him.
And that is exactly why Alex Ferguson needs to take an extra piece of chewing gum and bite his lip when he complains about how the fans of his football club want to see Wayne Rooney playing for the team, and playing his best. He is the best player United have – simply irreplaceable – and he needs someone to assure him that his current woes will eventually pass. If Alex Ferguson cannot see that, it is not just his loss, but the loss of United and of English football in general.
PS – The only conclusion I, as a heavy-hearted fan, can draw is that if Rooney is going to leave, I’d rather it was to Real Madrid – a club that can’t help itself from cramming its sticky hands in the sweet jar whenever there’s a new product on the market, and could well collapse if it ill-fatedly decided to borrow £60m+ it hasn’t accounted for and doesn’t need.