James Lawton: How times have changed as United boss cast in unlikely role of victim
It may still be a little too early to dismantle the stage at the Theatre of Dreams, but if you wanted to find the face of changing times yesterday it was the one owned by Alex Ferguson.
Ferguson looked pained and more than a little bewildered when he announced that, yes, it was true, Wayne Rooney had made himself available to the highest bidder, had decided that United were all of a sudden, someone else's dream and paymaster.
The strongest word is that Rooney, like his former team-mate Carlos Tevez, will soon enough be wearing the light blue of Manchester City, the club who may, finally, have achieved the ambition which so many times they have been forced to believe United had proofed against all threat and possibility.
If it is true, if Rooney is, indeed, about to inhabit the Ali Baba cave of City's Arabian wealth, Ferguson knows well enough that he cannot expect the smallest iota of sympathy outside his citadel of Old Trafford.
Ferguson for so long has exploited, with a shameless, but brilliant ruthlessness, every advantage that has come his way. Some of his most celebrated servants, Beckham, Van Nistelrooy, even his alter ego Roy Keane, have felt the force of his judgment that, one way or another, they have outlived their usefulness.
Yesterday we had another and entirely different picture. It was of Ferguson no longer the master of all he surveyed, no longer the man who turned almost every situation to his advantage, but one stretched and harried by new and unfamiliar circumstances.
Ferguson, the most successful manager in the history of English football, was plainly cast in the unlikely role of victim.
Victim of the constraints imposed upon him by the bizarre situation of United, one of the game's ultimate cash cows, painfully crimped by a debt load unimaginable in those days when he was converting them from a club up for auction at around £13m into a juggernaut concern valued at close to a billion. A victim, also maybe, of Rooney's need for support in the self-imposed disasters of his private life that a ferocious old professional found impossible to provide.
Most of all, though, you have to suspect, Ferguson has suffered most from a dividing line that has never before been quite so arbitrary; the sheer scale of the wealth available elsewhere to a footballer in his mid-twenties, who, you might have thought, had already acquired spending power beyond his dreams.
Yes, of course, there is a supreme irony here in that for so long Ferguson had every reason to believe that he could straddle that dividing line with hardly a care in the world.
He could beat down the doors of White Hart Lane and come away with Dimitar Berbatov. He could speculate on the potential of Cristiano Ronaldo at a give-away £12m. He could snap up Rio Ferdinand. Now he has to look into the unyielding face of Wayne Rooney, who despite the horrors of his recent experiences on and off the field, has the unbreakable understanding that at City he could snap his fingers for more than the near £200,000 a week already obtained by the strong but scarcely comparable Yaya Toure.
We know how Ferguson will handle any of the consequences that flow from his current crisis.
He will fight on, talking up the best that he has left and treating any challenger to his position as just another outrageous impostor. It is the way he rose and, we can be sure, it will be the way he goes down, if that is indeed his fate.
He knows, of course, that nothing is guaranteed in football, and certainly not to City, who have been cast as his most likely tormentors, if they pay something like £100m for a player, who, in recent months, has not exactly provided cast-iron evidence of the durability of his talent or the stability of his character.
The trouble, for Ferguson, is that he knows that, when all is right with the prodigy who left Everton, his beloved Everton, with scarcely a backward glance, Rooney is capable of doing anything he likes on a football field.