Rooney is in lion's den with Ferguson baying for blood
Published 18/10/2010 | 05:00
All that bad weather rolling off Alex Ferguson last Saturday made you wonder if, maybe, Wayne Rooney is the kind of chap who'd strike a match to investigate a gas leak.
Doesn't Colleen's little pet like living anymore? When Sir Alex declares you injured, the smart thing is to walk with a limp. Because the manager isn't voicing an opinion, he's setting a coordinate. It seems like Wayne is hell-bent on tugging a lion's tail here.
And something's got to blow.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Patrick Barclay in front of a book festival audience about his new biography of Ferguson, 'Football -- Bloody Hell!' Patrick is one of Britain's most respected football correspondents and someone who, previously, ghost-wrote a newspaper column for Sir Alex.
He sought and (eventually) got written approval from Ferguson for the project, yet still encountered reluctance from many in the game to assist in his exploration of the remarkable Scot. It wasn't, he sensed, that Ferguson actually told anybody not to contribute.
More a pervasive worry people had of being seen to cooperate with a publication that might be equivocal in its final portrayal of the Manchester United manager.
In spite of this, Barclay has written a wonderful book. He doesn't, he admits, expect Sir Alex to be blowing kisses at him when they next meet. For 'Football -- Bloody Hell!' captures the contradictions and battery-acid sourness of this complex personality just as eloquently as it elucidates his genius.
As with any proper biography, it isn't soap-scented flattery then. Actually, Ferguson probably won't like much of what he reads (and he will, undoubtedly, read it). But he will surely recognise the face in the mirror. A recurring issue is the hair-trigger temper that, routinely, seems to flare up with ungovernable force.
That volatility stretches right back to his playing days, some recalling his capacity to rage in dressing-rooms over team-mates' errors and, in one instance, running the length of the field to swing punches at a colleague for a misplaced pass in a testimonial!
Ferguson was sent off six times in his playing career and once called his manager at Dunfermline, Willie Cunningham, "a b****rd" after being omitted for a Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
His earliest days in management were informed by that same, ruthless singularity. After being sacked by St Mirren, he defied legal advice to take a case against the club. One of his most trusted lieutenants at Love Street, Ricky McFarlane, declined to appear for either side at the subsequent tribunal.
There and then, McFarlane ceased to exist for Ferguson and does not merit a single mention in his autobiography.
This is de rigeur in Sir Alex's story. People who cross him are all but erased from history. In some instances, even people who don't. Two of the players he enjoyed such momentous success with at Aberdeen, Gordon Strachan and Mark McGhee, talk of being inexplicably blanked by their old boss when they were managers of Coventry and Wolves respectively.
Yet, Sir Alex had been among Strachan's personal guests at the '85 FA Cup final and McGhee -- who had Darren Ferguson in his squad at Molineux -- considered himself a close confidante until, as he puts it, "Then -- bang! -- nothing. He had slammed the door shut. The calls stopped. And to this day, I cannot be sure why."
Barclay compellingly explores this side to Ferguson and you are left with the sense of a man who, sometimes, interprets slights where none exist.
There is, too, a curious obstinacy to this son of Govan that he himself would probably define as principle. He still refuses to talk to the BBC because of that 2004 Panorama programme that asked questions about his son Jason's involvement as a football agent.
And, most famously, his stand-off with John Magnier over stud fees for the remarkable stallion, Rock of Gibraltar, now seems positively eccentric in recall.
This, remember, was at a time when a company formed by Magnier and JP McManus -- Cubic Expressions -- had become the second biggest stake-holder in Manchester United shares.
In other words, the Scot was -- essentially -- now going to war with his own employer. In January '04, the extraordinary scenario of Magnier sending the United board a letter asking "99 questions" about the management of the club spoke of the depth the quarrel sank to.
Sixteen months later, Cubic would sell their 29pc stake in United to the Glazer family for an estimated £130m profit.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to the oddly truculent Rooney now. Because the elephant in the room at Old Trafford today is the story of Cubic and, prior to the fallout over Rock of Gibraltar, Magnier and McManus's friendship with Ferguson.
For Cubic made that splendid profit on the back of cold business acumen, neither Irishman ever pretending to have any emotional ties to the club. And, today, United's debt under the Glazers is more than £700m.
Ferguson has described the Americans as "brilliant owners", arguing that "all takeovers are done by debt". He says too that he has money to spend, if he requires it. Yet, the club made a £65m profit on replacing Cristiano Ronaldo with Antonio Valencia. And, for whatever reason, they were unprepared to pay the price of keeping Carlos Tevez in the red half of Manchester.
Now Rooney -- unequivocally United's most precious playing asset -- seems inclined to test Sir Alex's patience in a way that few have ever sensibly done. Perhaps he suspects the manager cannot afford to lose him on the basis that a club in such debt could not but be tempted to the bargain bins for a replacement.
So Wayne has stuck his head in the cage and is making silly faces. And the lion looks to be considering his options.
Someone might get the towels ready.