By Liam Twomey
As he emerged smiling from the Manchester United team bus two hours before kick-off at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, Wayne Rooney had no clue as to the humiliation that lay in store.
In truth, few did - Sir Alex Ferguson only informed a handful of senior players of his starting XI before reaching the ground. That Rooney was not among them is in itself telling.
When the teams were announced, shockwaves rippled through Twitter. Wayne Rooney, resident superstar with a wage to match and one of the biggest symbols of his club for almost a decade, snubbed in favour of a raw young striker, a flaky Portuguese winger and a 39-year-old legend.
The striker himself made no comment, but wife Coleen broke her silence to voice a reaction shared by many. “I can’t believe @WayneRooney isn’t starting tonight!!!,” she tweeted.
It was regarded as a surprise of epic proportions. But then, perhaps it should not have been. Sir Alex’s benching of Rooney for United’s biggest game of the season, seismic though it was, is merely a continuation of the process which has seen the relationship between player and manager erode over the past three years.
It is now at breaking point. Ferguson wants shot of Rooney, but the striker is in no hurry to go anywhere. That is where Rooney holds the advantage; his value will nosedive as soon as the summer transfer window closes. If he is still at Old Trafford on September 1, he will be into his penultimate season at the club. The two men are at loggerheads, with the backdrop of a Bosman transfer on the horizon.
Even at their closest, Rooney and Sir Alex always enjoyed a fiery bond. In his autobiography released last year, entitled My Decade, the former Everton star revealed he has often elected to “shout back” when subjected to the Scot’s infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment. “I don’t like getting shouted at by anyone,” he admitted. “I tell him he’s wrong and I’m right.”
Yet underneath all this, Sir Alex always fundamentally saw Rooney as something of a prodigal son. Until, of course, October 2010 when, having endured the worst few months of his career to date, the striker stunned everyone by announcing his intention to leave and questioning the club’s ambition.
If the former disclosure hurt Sir Alex, the latter left him seething. Rooney’s withering assessment of the ability of his own team-mates was viewed as a personal slight by his manager and, despite the saga unexpectedly ending in a bumper new contract with a basic wage of €287,000-a-week, the Scot has neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Ever since, Rooney has been the United player most regularly singled out for criticism, whether because of his weight, his lifestyle or his level of performance.
He has also become more acquainted with being dropped - on New Year’s Day last year he was omitted from the United squad to take on Blackburn at Old Trafford, fined a week’s wages and forced to train on his day off following a poor showing at Carrington the morning after a Boxing Day night out with Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson.
The investment reportedly demanded by Rooney arrived last summer in the shape of Robin van Persie. But if the England star believed the £25 million Dutchman was a sign of his growing influence at Old Trafford, he has been proved sorely mistaken. Rather than enhancing his standing, the former Arsenal man has relegated the 27-year-old to second billing.
This season Rooney’s most important stats remain impressive - 18 goals and 15 assists in 32 appearances for club and country, despite rarely playing as the lead striker - yet his efforts have done nothing to alter Sir Alex’s view that he is no longer the player who sensationally lit up the Premier League three years ago, or one capable of influencing the biggest matches.
Rooney’s lucrative current contract runs until the summer of 2015, but Sir Alex has no desire to renew it and commit another huge pot of money to a player he no longer believes merits such investment. The Scot is also loathe to deal again with Rooney’s controversial agent Paul Stretford. He has turned his attentions to other options, most notably Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski.
The only other solution for United is to sell, and doing so at the end of this season would guarantee the greatest possible financial return - leave it another season and Rooney will be heading into the final year of his contract, with a Bosman on the horizon.
But getting rid of Rooney will not be easy - most notably because the player himself has no desire to leave, regardless of the tensions with his manager.
He is settled in Manchester with high-school sweetheart Coleen, who is expected to give birth to the couple’s second child in July, in the middle of the transfer window. They live in a custom-built multi-million pound mansion in Prestbury, Cheshire, which was only completed last year. The close proximity to Liverpool also means familiar connections on both sides remain close.
From a footballing perspective, too, it is also easy to see why Rooney would want to stay at Old Trafford. Just 54 goals shy of Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time scoring record for United at the age of just 27, he is almost certain to write himself into the history of the club if he remains.
If he is to leave, however, the obvious solution in geographical terms would appear to be a move across town to Manchester City.
The ‘noisy neighbours’ were Rooney’s most interested suitors when he submitted his transfer request three years ago. But it is highly unlikely Sir Alex would sell a talented asset to his bitterest rivals, and City for their part now consider Napoli’s Edinson Cavani and Atletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao higher priority targets.
Beyond City, Rooney’s potential destinations are limited. Barcelona would be unlikely to make a move due to financial constraints, and the major Italian clubs are already in the grip of austerity measures. Bayern Munich, though capable of spending big money where necessary, would be unwilling to match his mammoth wages. And although the upcoming presidential elections at Real Madrid will not be as fiercely disputed as usual, the unopposed Florentino Perez is focused firmly on Falcao, though his top priority is keeping Cristiano Ronaldo happy.
Only Paris Saint-Germain look to have the resources and inclination to countenance signing a player of Rooney’s stature.
Invariably when a player exhausts the patience of Sir Alex, his days at Old Trafford are soon cut short. Just ask Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy or David Beckham.
But in this particular game of poker, it is Rooney who has the upper hand. He may harbour no hopes of outlasting his indefatigable manager, but he can still happily play the waiting game, allow his contract to run down and see what comes. Emotions aside, Sir Alex knows it would be madness to allow a player who remains an incredibly valuable asset to leave for nothing.
At 27, Rooney knows his next contract may be his last. He is prepared to wait for it, but his manager has made up his mind too. The scene is set for another titanic battle of wills.
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