Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Is the pursuit of Wayne Rooney a wind-up or a poor judgment call by Jose Mourinho?

Wayne Rooney was sent home with a hamstring injury
Wayne Rooney

The Wayne Rooney saga is taking over the world.

Communiques from Kuala Lumpur are met with counterpunches from Sydney. Chelsea, in the shape of Jose Mourinho, drop a titbit on the table for reporters in Malaysia and a ripple becomes a tidal wave by the time it crashes into the Manchester United beachhead in Australia. What a palaver.

This is becoming less about the player than power and display; it's about controlling the agenda, about gaining an edge, about Chelsea making United jump.

Mourinho's effortless quips have a strategic impact. "Forbidden word," he said when the Rooney issue was put to him during Chelsea's Far Eastern marketing campaign. Behind the inscrutable mask of faux concern his eyes sparkle and dance, and his answers wrap a little more mystery around the issue.

His counterpart at Manchester United, David Moyes, removed by circumstance as well as miles from the comfort of all he has known in football management, must weigh the appropriate response. He knows he is involved in a game of cat and mouse, but he is not driving this debate. Conflicting messages from the Rooney 'camp' send out sparks from the Manchester hinterland that require interpretation.

You sense Chelsea are loving the opportunity to make United squirm before a ball is kicked. And you wonder what all the fuss is about. A profound number of the Red sect would see Rooney out of the door right away for the right exchange. The player at the centre of this rum tussle is not the raging scimitar that arrived at Old Trafford nine years ago. Traditionally 27 was an age at which great players reached a peak.

We forget that Rooney was a supernova, a man-boy who had enjoyed a reign of tyranny on the pitch since he was seven. He was fully formed when he charged at the Arsenal defence in the service of Everton at 16.

That goal at Goodison in 2002, embellished by the ricochet off the crossbar, led Arsene Wenger to declare Rooney the best he had seen at that age.

His later arrival at Old Trafford erased concerns over the loss of David Beckham to Real Madrid, and he developed into one of the finest strikers to pull on the red of United, his 197 goals leaving him within 40 of Denis Law's total and 52 behind Sir Bobby Charlton's 249.

This contribution ought to be the basis of eternal love between player and fan. But that passion began to die after the 2010 World Cup when a scandal erupted around his private life.

The fallout was ugly. Rooney was hauled off during a defeat at Newcastle. The dressing room turned toxic and the first transfer request went in. Sir Alex Ferguson engineered a compromise that served player and club well enough. Rooney apologised to the fans, started scoring again after Christmas, and a full reconciliation seemed possible.

Within 14 months a story of some prescience appeared claiming Ferguson had finally washed his hands of Rooney. He had, the report claimed, lost patience with a perceived lack of discipline.

The full Old Trafford publicity machine was thrown at this, dismissing the idea of a rift. It could not paper over the cracks on the field, however. In United's most important game last season, the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, Rooney did not make the starting XI.

This was not some act of vengeance on Ferguson's part, as it may have been when he benched Beckham against the same opponents 10 years earlier. It was all about the football.

Rooney did not justify selection. Robin van Persie had reset the pecking order in United's frontline. Rooney was forced to forage ever deeper on the pitch to make an impact, he looked less than sprightly and suffered unflattering commentary from Ferguson about his weight.

This is the player Chelsea would be getting, an approximation to the wrecking-ball he was in his youth.

Of course guru Jose believes he has the means to return Rooney to his volcanic best: lather him in love and affirmation, and, hey presto, '30 goals here I come'. Good luck to him, and the player.

Yet there is still value in the Rooney brand though.

Chelsea might gain off the pitch from the association and acquire a bit of ballast in the markets of Asia and the Orient. But not, I would argue, in front of goal.