Wayne Rooney must find fiery streak for Manchester United
The Manchester United manager, David Moyes, last night described how a management strategy of brutal honesty with Wayne Rooney – which included telling him he had "gone soft" as a player – triggered the turnaround that has led the 28-year-old to sign a new £300,000-a-week Old Trafford deal.
After a summer in which Rooney had used intermediaries to make clear his deep unhappiness at United, Moyes made the bold – potentially high-risk – move of inviting him to his house in Preston and telling him: "If you ask me what's missing ... I think you've gone a bit soft," as the 52-year-old put it yesterday.
"I thought he hadn't been the hard-working, aggressive player he was," Moyes (below) related, hours after final image rights negotiations were concluded, allowing Rooney's new five-and-a-half year deal to be signed.
"I think I said: 'I've watched you. I've not been your manager. I just think you had better get back to the old, aggressive Wayne Rooney.' And I think he thought, 'Yes, maybe that.'
"What he had to get to was a level of fitness where he was able to produce again. And I think that's what he has done.
"Now, in games, people are saying, 'Look at the effort he's putting in'. It's his work rate, not just for himself but for the team. He's become an all-round team player who is also a technically gifted footballer."
The personal challenge laid down to Rooney has been only one reason for the volte-face from a player who was desperate to join Jose Mourinho at Chelsea during the summer.
Back then, the £250,000-a-week footballer let it be known that his feelings had been hurt by comments Moyes made in a newspaper briefing on the club's pre-season tour – a claim for which there was minimal, going on for no, justification.
But money has talked, just as it did in October 2011 when his last contract was signed. The deal imbues Rooney with supreme status – privy to the club's list of transfer targets and earmarked as captain when Nemanja Vidic departs this summer – has been deeply significant.
When Juan Mata arrived for £37m, there was no question that the Spaniard would play behind Robin van Persie, in Rooney's preferred role. In effect, the strategy has been to rebuild United around a player who will now command more money than any other Premier League player.
The club could scarcely have offered him more enticement.
Moyes insisted last night that the question of Rooney's captaincy would be deferred until the close season. "Yes, it's possible but I wouldn't want to say until the summertime."
Now comes the acid test of Rooney's loyalty – his willingness to take the probable drop out of Champions League football which lies ahead. United have only 12 games left to make good the 11-point lead over them established by fourth-placed Liverpool and even Moyes admitted last night that it was a tall order.
"Well, at the moment it's still a long way away. We're well off the pace," he said. "We have to hope that teams slip up."
Meanwhile,Moyes revealed that the great Diego Maradona rubbed shoulders with his players during their warm-weather training camp in Dubai.
With United out of the FA Cup, Moyes had a 10-day gap between games so he decided to take his squad to the sun-drenched emirate for a five-day break last week.
United's players were put through their paces in the 27 degree heat and they also bumped into Maradona – a man who Moyes regards highly due to his legendary skills and because of the infamous 'Hand of God' goal he scored against old foes England during the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona happened to be in Dubai at the same time as United and the World Cup winner happily posed for pictures with the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Robin van Persie and Rio Ferdinand.
Moyes believes the trip to Dubai was hugely beneficial to his players and he expects the meeting with Argentina's most famous football player to stick in his memory for a while.
"It was great to see him (Maradona). If you are a Scot like me, he is one of our idols!" Moyes said with a smile. "He asked if he could come in and watch some training and we were delighted to have him and it was good.
"All the players spent a minute or two with him. Anybody who knows anything knows he and Pele are up there with the best the world has ever known."