Author: Herzog’s Child
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On October 20th, 2010, a gang of 40 or so local Manchester United supporters turned up outside Wayne Rooney’s home in Prestbury, Cheshire. Most wore black hooded jackets, some wore balaclavas. It was a threatening mob and one that carried an unambiguous message: join City and there will be consequences. Rooney had just recently handed in a transfer request. Media reports had suggested that his agent, Paul Stretford, had flirted with Manchester City executives in a bid to secure a cross-town move for the want-away striker. A similar group had turned up at Rio Ferdinand’s house five years previously. The defender had reached a stalemate in negotiations with United over a new contract. He had been seen in a London restaurant with then Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon, prompting speculation that he wanted out. As with Rooney, the supporters wanted answers. Upon seeing them, Ferdinand came out and addressed the issue. Rooney stayed indoors and rang the police. Both players eventually stayed. It is unlikely that the men outside their gated homes influenced their decisions. The new contracts and higher wages that followed their stalling may have. Rio Ferdinand will play his testimonial match at Old Trafford on Friday. Rooney is likely to be gone by the end of the month, twelve months from his own testimonial year. He wants out, again, and it appears this time really will be the end. No mob will arrive to persuade him to stay. Many now would drive him away.
It has been a troubling 12 months for Rooney. The quality he once apparently craved United to invest in arrived and in a cruel twist of fate reduced him to a supporting-act role. He is no longer the primary goal-getter, the one looked to when times get difficult. As a leading front-man, he has been replaced by someone more reliable, both on and off the field. At his finest, it’s not outlandish to suggest Wayne Rooney is a more effective player than Robin van Persie, particularly for a team like United who Rooney often carried in earlier days. Yet the Rooney of old irregularly takes to the field now. The fire, enthusiasm and distinct joy of the youthful Rooney have given way to a tepid and predictable style, one that is difficult to not lament. He also regularly appears short of fitness. Quite why this has happened is hard to gauge. Some players, for a host of reasons, decline early. Pace is lost, enthusiasm fizzles out, relationships with fellow players and managers irreparably break down. Perhaps Rooney’s relationship with the club, who bowed to his previous needs, has become stagnant. Maybe there is an inner admission and instinct that as he reaches his peak years, something is going wrong and only a move will solve it. Likelier still, maybe he doesn’t know what he wants himself and he’s being poorly led by a notoriously questionable adviser. Ultimately, it’s all irrelevant. What should have been a career remembered for successes and records, will now likely be recalled with sighs. Someone from Merseyside becoming a Manchester United legend was always going to sound like the workings of a fiction writer, but a formidable young Rooney appeared destined to be the first. A player once hailed as the “white Pele” by those who adored him is now on the precipice of becoming their new hate figure, a mercenary whose unfathomable movements will inspire wrath.
Footballers are not supposed to want to leave Manchester United. Even those who lack the quality to succeed edge towards the door heavy-hearted, knowing that the only route now is down. Few go on to experience similar highs. Young players who have left the club having failed to make the grade have often spoken of their hesitancy and sorrow when it is time to leave. For them, it is hard to accept the reality that only a precious few are good enough for United. Those who are rarely ask to leave. In recent years, there have two exceptions. Gerard Pique, snared from Barcelona at sixteen, was heading back there at twenty one. United’s defence was difficult to break into and he wanted another shot at his home-town club. In the five years that have succeeded his move home, he has played consistently in one of the best club sides of all time and has won the lot. Cristiano Ronaldo became one of the two best players in football during his time at Manchester United and won all that there was to win. No foreign import is ever likely to be as remarkable as him again. He had no ties with United and when Madrid called, the opportunity to enact his boyhood fantasy was too good to turn down. Whispers, however, from those who should know suggest he misses United. It’s not an easy club to leave. Wayne Rooney’s boyhood club was Everton. Unlike Ronaldo, he isn’t in the top bracket of European footballers right now. Before, maybe, but not now. He isn’t in the position to pick who he wants to play for. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid – the modern elite have shown little interest in a player who just a few years ago would have strolled into every team in Europe. Manchester City haven’t even coming sniffing this time. Only three clubs have regularly been linked with Rooney. PSG looked but went elsewhere. Arsenal appear more determined to spend bigger on a player who, despite being outstanding, has a grotesque past. Only Chelsea, led again by a rampant egotist who revels in disrupting others, have shown any real interest in him. It’s them or no one now. A predictably miserly bid was submitted and instantly rejected. Another will follow before long.
If reports are to be believed – and Rooney’s sustained silence would suggest that perhaps they are – he has a desire to join Chelsea. Again, it’s difficult to figure out why. London is a more attractive city than Manchester, for sure, but one gets the impression Rooney isn’t swayed by that. Mourinho’s undoubted magnetism could be playing a part. A dramatist he may well be, but he’s also a winner. Maybe Rooney feels he would fit in better at Chelsea than he does now at United. Various stories have suggested that Rooney, once a playful and chirpy character behind the scenes, is withdrawn and not seeming himself. Maybe lining up alongside Ashley Cole, who Rooney said he would “take a bullet” for, appeals to him more than continuing to play with players he became a winner with. Even more money, something the modern footballer has an insatiable hunger for, may play its sorry role, too. United are moving into a new era, but it’s believed Rooney’s choice was more or less made up post-Madrid. Unhappy with his exclusion, it’s said he sought assurances that couldn’t be given and felt it would be in his interests to seek pastures new. It has to be wondered what assurances he looked for. Presumably they revolved around playing-time and a cemented position in the team. Given his performances throughout the season, seeking any guarantees appears naive in the extreme. At Everton on the opening day of the season, he looked unfit and unmotivated. An injury followed and from the sidelines he would have grimaced as United, with an efficient and professional striker in tow, coped perfectly well without him. Goals were slotted in, most notably a crucial winner at Craven Cottage, but it’s telling that come the end of the season, Rooney was nowhere near being a candidate for Player of the Year. The league success had shown a life without Rooney could still be peachy.
Feeling disposable is often an unendurable feeling for the modern footballer. It’s said that Rooney has felt unloved at United at times, that the trojan work he provided in his formative years hasn’t been fully appreciated by those who matter most. It is clear that his relationship with Alex Ferguson was never quite perfect. What is unclear is who is to blame for it. While many United supporters view Ferguson with nothing less than adoration, there are some questions that can asked about his handling of Rooney. Throughout the years Rooney has often been deployed as United’s saviour, a plug to fill gaps that have opened because reinforcements weren’t purchased. He has played both forward roles, as an advanced midfielder and a left midfielder. Even when used in his right role, he regularly provided an effort of two men, a product of the street-player spirit that elevated him to early stardom.
Eamon Dunphy, while analysing a European tie a number of years ago, predicted that the constant shifting of Rooney would eventually result in his early decline. It’s hard to say with precision if this is correct, but the theory is not as preposterous as it seemed at the time. The player/manager relationship certainly hasn’t helped. Rooney never provided Ferguson with the sparkle in his eye that Ronaldo brought about during his time with the club. He rarely waxed lyrical about him. Not as much as he did with other players, at least. There is a sense that behind the scenes things were more than awry. If matters before the first transfer request were slightly strained, it’s probable that the relationship that followed was in disarray. Public statements may have suggested otherwise, but it’s difficult to believe that all was rosy between the two. History has shown that Ferguson rarely forgives and certainly never forgets. The season that has just passed has brought this point further into view. United may have coped reasonably well without him, but Rooney’s exclusion from the second leg of the Madrid tie was peculiar. Many predicted it to be the harbinger of a saga that would escalate when the season ended. In truth, it started before then. Bowing out of Old Trafford against Swansea, Ferguson used his final dagger against Rooney, publicly stating that Rooney some time recently had requested a move. The statement was a bold one, clearly loaded with an agenda. It was a final one-fingered salute to the player and his adviser. The message was damning and clear: here, let’s see how you deal with this. It worked in his favour. Supporters had made their minds up. This time, Rooney really did need to leave.
The problem with high profile, drama-riddled transfers is that the truth usually remains hidden. United have already stated publicly that Rooney is not for sale. They said the same about Ronaldo. Liverpool are saying the same about Suarez. The players, through different mediums, say something different. Rooney has remained silent throughout the summer, save for a carefully executed leak from his side. Rooney, it is said, was “angry and confused” about United’s position on him. While many tried to read into the comments, it’s safe to conclude that they were merely all part of a game to speed his exit along. This is the lamentable way things are done now in football. Transparent club statements, silence from the key individuals, quotes leaked from the ubiquitous “source close to.” The truth in these situations is never revealed, as there are always two or more parties proclaiming to harbour different versions of it. Transfer negotiations drag out because the selling club, the player and the buying club all wish to get the best possible deal for themselves. In Rooney’s case, there only appears to be one viable solution now. He’ll get his wish. So will Chelsea. United will receive a fee that should represent his true value. However, it’s a risk for everyone involved. Disposing of £30-35m for a player whose form tends to fluctuate is a gamble, no matter how much money you have to throw around. Chelsea paid £50m for Fernando Torres and have finished 6th and 3rd since his arrival in January 2011. If Rooney arrives, Torres could depart: sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out. There are no guarantees. Similarly, there is no guarantee that selling will be the best option for United. They may not lose a player who once promised to be the wunderkind who would alight the world stage, but with Rooney’s departure they will lose a figure who has been integral to their successes since his arrival nine years ago. Unless someone of quality is brought in to ease the burden of Rooney’s departure, United will be a lesser beast without him. The current revisionism existing amongst some of United’s support would suggest otherwise. His patchy campaign last season means he cannot ever be trusted to deliver again. It is a naive view, in a sense, and one that could only be proved if he were to be given the opportunity to show it was merely a blip and not a stage of decline. The fear is that, under the guidance of a manager like Mourinho, he could return to his old self. Only the future will reveal what’s true. Ultimately, the entire situation is a regrettable one. In those early days, when he looked unstoppable and bent on becoming an all time great, few would have said he wouldn’t retire at United. Everything has now changed. Rooney is said to have fallen out of love with the club which brought him all the success any footballer could ever wish for. And now the essence of the club – the majority of its supporters – is falling out of love with him. There seems to be only one way this can end. It will be a good day when it does, for it will bring to a close a chapter in both the player and the club’s history that has been regrettable for all who have had to witness it unfold.