Rooney holds all aces with huge pot on table
At the World Cup finals last summer, in the long weeks in England's training camp outside Rustenburg, Wayne Rooney was given to wondering aloud whether his future was best served with Manchester United, who had made him an offer of a new contract that had not come close to his expectations.
Among the despondency and the long unfilled hours around England's headquarters in the little town of Phokeng in the North West province of South Africa, Rooney's disaffection with his club was not a secret.
United's offer of a contract worth around £150,000 a week was dwarfed by the huge salaries being paid to Manchester City's new signings funded by their owner, Sheikh Mansour.
Rooney's other concern was whether United had the means to replace the likes of Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, especially with the club paying £40m a year in interest on the Glazer family's enormous debt.
As word got around about Rooney's unhappiness, it became clear that his frustration at United had a few elements to it. But, like all big decisions that affect the modern footballer, Rooney's choice not to sign his new deal came down to one factor above all: money. The common perception of Rooney is that he is thick and that away from the pitch he is ripe for exploitation by the men in suits who understand the balance sheet better than he does. But Rooney is not thick.
He has an instinctive understanding of how much he is worth and he has the single-mindedness and strength of character to force the issue in order to get it.
There is intense interest among footballers in the wages of their peers. It is hard to underestimate the effect that the extraordinary salary City agreed with Yaya Toure, the Ivorian midfielder signed from Barcelona in the summer, has had on the expectations of the best players in the game.
It raised the bar dramatically and it was paid to a player whom no one would consider as among the most sought-after in the world.
Toure's deal was devised to give him a salary of around £4.1m after tax. That means he earns around £185,000 a week for now, but City will raise that to £221,000 a week when the government increases the top rate of income tax to 50pc in April.
It is a terrifying prospect for football club chairmen that players will soon be asking them to make up the shortfall when the Exchequer takes its extra 10pc. Just as John Terry had his head turned in the summer of last year by the wages that City are capable of paying, so it has been impossible for Rooney to ignore.
There is no compunction among footballers at maximising their salary and City are currently the biggest show in town. The prevailing mood among this very fortunate generation of young men is that, as the single most valuable commodity in the game, they owe it to themselves to make as much as they can. Rooney has options. His contract is up in June 2012 when he could walk away for free.
The Fifa 'Webster ruling' would permit him to buy out the last year of his contract for little more the equivalent of a year's salary, £5m. Rooney will not have to listen to the phone-ins over the next few days to know the rage and disbelief that will be expressed at his refusal to sign a new contract.
He will already have realised what he is about to unleash. But he has spent most of his young life in the eye of one storm or another.
So what next? Alex Ferguson and David Gill, the club's chief executive, have negotiated countless acquisitions and sales of famous footballers, but they have never faced a situation like this.
Comparisons with David Beckham are misleading. Beckham signed a new contract in 2002, the summer before he was sold to Real Madrid, which gave United five years' protection against him leaving for free. Rooney will be a free agent in just 20 months' time.
Rooney is represented in negotiations with the club by his long-serving agent Paul Stretford, who has a lifetime of experience in the brutal world of deal-making in football. In the 1990s, Stretford represented a series of high-profile English footballers including Stan Collymore and Andy Cole.
However, as Rooney has developed into the most famous player in the country, Stretford has concentrated all his energies on his stellar client.
In 2004, Stretford alleged he was blackmailed by Rooney's former agents in a court case that eventually collapsed on the basis of his evidence. He was banned by the English FA and then successfully appealed.
Most recently, he defeated a £4.5m claim against him and his client from the talent agency that he founded, sold and eventually left in 2008 -- taking with him Rooney and his wife Coleen.
Rooney's life has never been straightforward and nor has the life of the man who negotiates his contracts, his commercial deals, oversees his legal team and goes to battle on his behalf with newspapers.
But what that tells us is that both Rooney and Stretford are tough characters and the prospect of public disapproval or a struggle with Ferguson and Gill will not deter the two men if the rewards are big enough.
If Rooney is sold, as United are threatening if he does not sign his contract, then it will be he who chooses where he goes. If he leaves for free then the rewards will be phenomenal -- whether it is for City or elsewhere.
And if he stays, which seems increasingly unlikely, then it will only be on his own terms. He is in the ideal position and there will be many footballers of more modest talent looking at Rooney's example and wondering if they should do the same.
The prize is enormous. Rooney could potentially become the Premier League's first £250,000-a-week footballer, the £1m-a-month man. Over the next five years that will potentially earn Rooney, who turns 25 on Sunday, £60m by the time he's 30.
For a player and an agent who have learned the hard way that fortunes in football can change in an instant, it is too good a possibility to ignore. (©Independent News Service)