Master of diversion laying down gauntlet to Rooney
Published 19/11/2010 | 05:00
If Alex Ferguson has one supreme weapon, whatever his situation, it is the diversionary tactic. He can say one thing and mean something quite separate but the bullet generally finds it target.
It means that, if he hadn't been a football man, the Manchester United manager might well have made a career as a trade union demagogue, even a guerrilla fighter. There is a reminder of this in his spirited but coded attack on Wayne Rooney's notorious agent Paul Stretford. The agent took the blows from Fergie but it is unlikely his rich but troubled client Rooney missed the point.
That point is, in the wake of the contract battle that Stretford orchestrated so powerfully, and successfully, it is Rooney who has to deal with the consequences and the huge pressure that came with the triumph which brought much controversy, even contempt.
Ferguson paints his star player as a kind of victim, both of a new football culture -- which demands that its leading players be seen in all their glorious wealth -- and the manipulations of his financial Svengali.
In the process, however, the manager simply pushes up the ante on Rooney's need to restate some of the qualities that first made some hard judges believe he was maybe the finest natural talent produced in these islands since George Best.
The crunch question which Ferguson carefully skirts is plain enough: is Rooney ever again going to find the basic imperatives that once persuaded us that he was more than a virtuoso, that in many ways he was both a force of nature and a throwback to those times when great players maintained the edge of their ambition and joy in the game that they learned on the streets?
That such a necessary inquiry lurked on even a distant horizon was just about unthinkable this time last year.
Rooney was in the middle of an extraordinary surge of conviction -- and a restatement of so much of that early promise. Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Madrid had bequeathed him the centre of the Old Trafford stage. All eyes were on him now as he smashed home the goals that suggested he was not so much meeting a challenge as entering an ultimate comfort zone.
We all now know what happened in the early spring: an injury in Munich and a fast-growing crisis, later revealed to be at least partly to do with the anarchy taking hold of his private life stemming from trouble in his marriage.
When Ferguson left him out of a league match at Goodison Park -- where the hatred waged against their former hero is remarkable even in these days of rancid football spirit -- he said he was merely protecting him from the mob.
Perhaps he was protecting Rooney from himself -- and another show of the contempt for his audience that was so grimly produced when English fans who had travelled to South Africa for the World Cup began to express their dismay at the poverty of the performances of Rooney and his team-mates.
It was as though Ferguson was attempting, more than anything, to make Rooney think about who he was, or perhaps used to be, and what he had come to represent.
Now we can be sure that, behind the public criticism of Rooney's agent, Ferguson will be making those demands on his most talented player with a new force. The manager has already conceded he has some difficulties in operating in football's new climate. He agrees that some of the old certainties have slipped away.
"The world has changed -- and so has players' attitudes. I'm dealing with more fragile human beings than I used to be. They are cocooned by modern parents, agents, even their own images at times. They need to be seen with their tattoos and their earrings. It's a different world for me so I have had to adapt," he said.
Adapt maybe, but not surrender. Certainly not to the fear voiced in some quarters that maybe the best of Rooney has, at age 25, already come and gone.
There have been several earlier points in his career when the suspicion has surfaced. Ronaldo's gallery-pleasing extravagances at Old Trafford at times seemed to be sucking away at much of Rooney's self-belief.
This was particularly evident in the 2009 European Cup final in Rome, where United and Rooney were scarcely recognisable as the force which had overcome Chelsea in a ferocious collision in Moscow a year earlier.
Rooney pottered about on the left side, virtually anonymous, and he had so many questions to answer when Ronaldo was gone.
He answered most of them with a thrilling conviction and even under the shadow of revelations about his private life, and the implosion of his aura in the World Cup, he still managed to produce some evidence of his inherent brilliance in games for England against Bulgaria and Switzerland.
Soon enough, though, what by his standards was modest proficiency in producing some of his natural skill appeared to be nothing more than an illusion. His performances for United became progressively wretched.
Then rebellion, the vow to ignore a new contract offer and leave United that briefly produced in Ferguson -- the patron who, unlike the rest of English football, was prepared to risk Everton's asking price of £28m on an unformed character -- an impression of demoralisation.
Now Ferguson talks of Rooney's contrition and the theory that he has been made fitter and remotivated by his rehabilitation in the clean air and pine trees of Oregon.
These are typically bullish statements from the master of Old Trafford but, like his broadside against the agent, they do not conceal a central truth.
It is that the next few weeks are utterly pivotal in the life of Wayne Rooney and the club who so perilously depend on his return as one of the world's most significant players.
Ferguson's great worry must be that, along with the world, something has changed in someone so crucial to the last of his ambitions -- and that it may not be for the better.