The truth behind the Rooney rumours

by Dan Dawkins

It’s official. Wayne Rooney won’t leave Manchester United this summer. Earlier today, Alex Ferguson strongly denied that Wayne Rooney would leave United after frenzied media speculation surrounding the striker’s absence from the starting XI against Madrid.

“It is totally out of the question. There is no way we would sell him, or any of our best players,” Ferguson said.

Case closed. Except…

Ferguson’s quote isn’t from this morning’s press conference but is in fact April 12 2003 in response to the question of whether United would sell David Beckham to Real Madrid

Alex Ferguson tells it straight. Except when he doesn’t. He wouldn’t sell ‘that mob a virus’ but did sell Ronaldo to Real Madrid. For someone so lucid, abrasive and decisive, it’s risky to take him at his word. Especially if Ferguson thinks masking the truth is in the best interest of the club at the present moment. Ferguson may assuage the facts but he never betrays the best interests of the club.

Without doubt, the media has over hyped the possibility of Rooney being sold by United and the swarm of stories surfacing, spinning grand conspiracies, are a consequence of a simple tactical omission. An omission borne of logic, not spite, vindicated by the performance of Danny Welbeck in Rooney’s usual #10 role. However, it would be naïve in the extreme to dismiss an entire ecosystem of professional football writers as a cabal of SEO-led, headline seeking sensationalists.

In my experience of the videogame industry where I’ve worked closely with publishers, developers, PRs and journalists for over a decade, there are certain open secrets that get discussed in person but aren’t fit for publication. Sometimes, that’s because you lack the meaningful supporting evidence to go public. Other times because it would mean betraying a source or jeopardising a meaningful long term relationship.

When the media ‘who should know better’ present something as a rumour, it’s unwise to assume that it’s been made up – that there’s smoke and no fire. Quite often, journalists will have to resort to edging around the reality of a story because they don’t have nailed-on quotes or a source willing to go public. Naturally, there are some Lazy Journalists™ but there an equal number who really know their stuff; who attend every press conference, who talk to the backroom staff, who have off-the-cuff chats with players, who get tip offs from agents, who talk to other journalists. It’s grossly naïve to assume that the fans always know better.

We always know better. Except when we don’t.

Earlier this year, I was accused of making up stories about PlayStation 4 and being a classic Lazy Journalist, when I’d literally spoken to someone working closely with the machine and corroborated my story with other journalists. It leaves some journalists in an awkward position of having to portray things as rumours for fear of revealing your valued source, but better that than say nothing at all. Why did all the football papers start shouting about Rooney all at once? Since when someone breaks rank on an ‘open secret’, it’s suddenly a field day.

Rooney might well have a great relationship with Ferguson. Except he might not.

October 18th, 2010. It isn’t a day etched in United folklore, like 26th May 1999. Or Feb 12th 2011, when Wayne Rooney scored his incredible match-winning overhead kick against Manchester City. Yet in terms of the England striker’s future at Manchester United, it might be the most significant. Golden rule: don’t cross Ferguson.

Wayne Rooney’s transfer request with arch rivals Manchester City hovering was as public a display of dissent as Alex Ferguson has had to manage in his 27 years in charge. Ever adaptable, Ferguson swallowed his pride, and – recognising star player Rooney’s statistical and symbolic value in light of Ronaldo’s recent departure – used all his powers of charm, guile and adaptability to secure the right result for the club.

His unexpected, fragile, display of disbelief, tugged acutely on Rooney’s heartstrings. It was a side of Ferguson we’d rarely seen – a vulnerable father figure, bewildered by the rejection of a loved one he’d nurtured so gently. Within days, Rooney reneged and over time normal service was resumed, culminating in the 2008/2009 Premier League title. In political, and man management terms, it’s arguably Ferguson’s finest hour.

Sir Alex’s recognition of Rooney’s importance shouldn’t be confused with forgiveness. Defy Ferguson, especially in public, and the clock is ticking as former ‘untouchable’ stars like Stam, Keane, Beckham and others will attest. Publicly, the wound was healed but Rooney’s status has slowly eroded, most prominently after he was dropped for the home defeat to bottom club Blackburn on Dec 31 2011, allegedly due to Ferguson’s fury after a Boxing Day night out.

Ferguson has been consistently critical this season, albeit in couched terms, of Rooney’s fitness, culminating in his headline exclusion for the Madrid game. Rooney’s absence wasn’t even that surprising, said The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor:

“His exclusion would once have brought outcry but now elicits a different kind of scrutiny. It is a form of regret, almost sadness, that for all his achievement he has not turned out to be the player English football had quite expected: the all-action hero who would terrorise players so devastatingly it would be barely conceivable Old Trafford could witness one of its top five European nights in the Ferguson era without him in the team. The player, one might say, Rooney used to be.”

Robin van Persie is undoubtedly United’s first-choice striker despite his recent dip in form and it’s the Dutchman’s signing that is arguably Ferguson’s most stinging critique of Rooney’s long term prospects. It’s ludicrous to suggest Rooney isn’t a hugely talented striker of whom a team is almost certainly stronger with than without.

But on that day he handed in the transfer request, the emotional link to the Old Trafford faithful frayed, if not snapped, and fans began to entertain life without Rooney. Lest we forget, he’s played at the top level for almost 12 years which must surely take its toll on someone who’s natural ability is not shared by his fitness.

It’s easy to overreact to an occasion such as this and Rooney may well end his career at Old Trafford but there’s a suspicion that Ferguson now considers him expendable. While he’d be unlikely to be subject to another huge bid from Manchester City, or indeed any English club, a destination like PSG – who’ve been linked – is entirely plausible.

Any offer around £25-30m would surely be entertained, saving no small fraction of the Old Trafford wage bill (£250k+ pw) plus bolstering transfer coffers for what surely must be realistic interest in players like Lewandowski and Rodriguez, given the persistent links.

£30m for a 28-year-old who’ll arguably never achieve what seemed so tantalizingly possible in the flush of youth? I’d be surprised if we didn’t take it, perhaps more so if we were offered it. An unexpected bonus would be freeing Kagawa to play in more natural support striker role and if Lewandowski is a realistic target, Ferguson must surely be looking to replicate the élan of that title winning Dortmund front line.

The impossible dream is that selling Rooney might be a necessary sacrifice if there’s any possibility of re-signing Ronaldo. The persistent links may be mere media SEO kerfuffle for eager United fans, but his affection for the club is no illusion. The Portugese superstar clearly respects Ferguson on a paternal level and might relish celebrating the twilight of their respective careers – most acutely, Sir Alex’s – to mutual benefit.

Oddly, Madrid’s victory was the best result if United do intend to pursue Ronaldo. If he can win the CL with Madrid and Mourinho walks, there’s a neat window of separation with destinies fulfilled. It’s obviously way more complex than that – Madrid have more than a little say – and it could all be a contract rouse. Still, it doesn’t hurt to dream the impossible.

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