Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Did Sir Alex Ferguson blink first over Wayne Rooney?

If Sir Alex Ferguson ever imagined the Wayne Rooney problem permitted a swift, and less than candidly reported solution, he knows a lot better now.

For a little while the Manchester United manager may have thought he had produced wisdom worthy of Solomon but two minutes can be long time both in football and life.

That's a reflection which Rooney has had plenty of time to ponder since his apparently fleeting bouts of adultery were revealed but for Ferguson it came with the speed and the force of a hammer blow.

One moment he was congratulating himself on the triumphant handling one of the most difficult hands ever dealt him.

Then the cards were strewn all over the floor except for The Joker that circumstances, and perhaps his own mistake, had pinned on his forehead.

His claim that his decision to leave out Rooney had been based entirely on a desire to shield him from the “terrible abuse” of a hate-filled crowd was immediately disputed, not only by sources reportedly close to the player's circle but also Ferguson's friend and admirer, Everton's David Moyes, who declared: “Maybe the manager just felt it was the right decision not to play him; maybe he thought he was not playing that well, maybe he thought that he wanted to play but he had to leave somebody out and his (Rooney's) games hadn't been so good.

“So I don't think you should put it all on the crowd. The manager knows. Maybe he was just making sure everybody realises that if you play for Manchester United you have to conduct yourself in a (certain) manner — and the football club doesn't really care who you are.”

Talk about a bouquet of barbed wire for Ferguson to sling on the refuse pile.

Not only did he lose the points that United should have comfortably gathered in, he was damned on almost any charge put before the court.

If Rooney's omission was about veiled discipline, it was coated in evasion that left us — and maybe Rooney himself — some way from beholding an act of authority, moral or otherwise.

If it had indeed been about protecting his player from the worst that the Everton fans could produce, Ferguson now has to deal with the complaint that when faced with the cry of the mob he — rather than the combative Rooney — blinked.

Yet Ferguson had reason enough to take the optimistic view in those euphoric moments before Everton's Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta struck so late and so hard.

He was two goals up with barely two minutes to play. Rooney was back in his mansion negotiating with his wife Coleen for a resumption of family life.

Possibly best of all, a horde of tormentors on the Goodison Park terraces had been left with an anticlimactic choice between watching a football match — a rather superb one as it turned out — or playing with the inflatable doll some intellectual giant had brought in order to top up Rooney's misery.

In the end what we had was an at times beautiful match played against the ugliest possible backcloth.

Perhaps the immutable bottom line was that whatever he did Ferguson was bound to be damned in one corner of the argument or another.

One theory is that the Old Trafford manager has performed the first act in an inevitable casting aside of a star player who has simply attracted too much attention to himself for the wrong reasons.

The names of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have been fed into the equation, for reasons not immediately obvious, at least not here.

Beckham was engulfed in the celebrity lifestyle that he embraced from the moment of his marriage to Posh Spice and Ferguson concluded, with some courage given the player's cultish popularity, that his performance no longer justified all the distractions.

Ronaldo wore a permanent pout in his last season at United and you didn't have to be an expert in body language to understand that it cried out to be somewhere else, and specifically Real Madrid.

Rooney plainly presents a different kind of problem. His form was superb last season before dissolving in injury in March and, who knows for sure, the prospect of some devastating need to deal under a ferocious public glare with past misdeeds.

A lull in contract discussions between Rooney and the club, which if maintained would lead to a progressive decline in his value to a United forced to sustain itself under the massive weight of interest payments, is the latest strand in a skein of speculation.

There is even talk of his decamping, like Ronaldo to Real Madrid, which for Ferguson would be perhaps the most bitter irony of all in view of the fact that when he was investing £25m in his belief in Rooney, Real's current coach Jose Mourinho was sniffing that he preferred the prospects of his own Chelsea signing, the £5m Serbian Mateja Kezman, whose summer career development was to be returned to Paris Saint-Germain after an unsuccessful loan stint with Zenit St Petersburg.

What isn't in doubt, at least, is that at 24 Rooney remains both a formidable talent and one capable of playing under huge personal pressure.

Such quality is not likely to disappear in the passing, one way or another, maelstrom of his family life. Nor is Ferguson's belief in this order of ability.

No doubt we will get a clearer view of the situation tomorrow night when Rangers arrive at Old Trafford for the opening of the Champions League games. Rooney, the fallen prodigy, is certain to play, we are assured. If he does, it is reasonable to expect a somewhat more tolerant crowd reaction than the one he would certainly have faced at Goodison Park.

This, Ferguson swears, was the priority in the strategy that dammed the hate. And delayed, in any way you look at it, a moment of truth.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph