WHEN Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left Old Trafford at the end of the ’08/’09 season, Alex Ferguson turned to Wayne Rooney to provide him with something special.
Right now, there's nothing at all special about him – on or off the pitch. I watched Rooney last night against Rangers and to me, he looked the same as he has done for some time now.
There's no doubt in my mind that he has been under a cloud in his own mind for a number of months and his performance merely confirmed the notion.
For some players, the football pitch is a place where the real world does not impinge and no matter what is happening in their personal lives, they can leave it all behind once the referee starts a game.
Others are not so lucky and clearly, the scale of the controversy surrounding Rooney is impacting on the way he plays.
This gives Ferguson a huge dilemma and not one with an easy solution. Ferguson's instinct is to stick by his man and help Rooney through what is a painful time in his life.
He created the situation himself, but it will fall to his manager to shoulder some of the burden. Over the years, Ferguson has shown great loyalty to a variety of ‘problem' players.
He never blinked when Eric Cantona dived into the crowd at Selhurst Park and he was first in to defend Roy Keane any time the Corkman lost his temper.
But to me, the Rooney situation is something else entirely and much more serious than anything Ferguson has had to deal with before during his time at Old Trafford.
He ripped into a drinking culture when he arrived first and established his way as the only way. But he can only keep order around the club and if his authority cannot keep the mega-stars he manages as footballers on the straight and narrow in their private lives, there's nothing he can do about it.
He must always put the club first and Ferguson knows that he has nobody else to replace Rooney if he decides that a rest away from the glare of media attention is necessary for his best player.
That's a sign of the times at Old Trafford. When Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid and Tevez to Manchester City, Ferguson challenged Rooney to step forward and become Manchester United's most important player.
His form for six months last season was fantastic and everyone predicted a career-defining World Cup finals for Rooney. But he crashed in South Africa and hindsight now tells us that he had other things on his mind; like the future fate of his marriage and whether his infidelity would hit the newsstands in the most lurid fashion imaginable.
This is an old story. Rooney and his wife Colleen have been marketed as a strong family unit, more down to earth than Beckham Inc., and like many film stars, politicians and preachers, when a crack appears in a well-crafted image, the headlines are always savage.
The tabloids have always enjoyed baiting Rooney. They portray him as a thick, overpaid yob anyway and his stupid behaviour has brought an avalanche of abuse on him and his family.
It won't be going away any time soon as far as I can see. That's Ferguson's problem. Every move Rooney makes is being played out in the tabloids and while that is happening, it's obvious that his mind cannot be totally on his work.
At some point, unless Rooney's form picks up, Ferguson will have to make a judgement and find a way to take him out of the firing line.
But if he drops Rooney, what else has he got? Every great team needs a share of great players and at the moment Ferguson is relying on two old-timers, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, to load the gun, but he needs his top man firing the bullets and on last night's evidence against Rangers, he's shooting blanks.
Rangers were by no means impressive. They came to do a job and they did it comfortably, restricting a much-changed Manchester United team to long pot shots from Darron Gibson and not a great deal else.
He did well enough, young Gibson, and I was happy for him. I think it was unfair of Giovanni Trapattoni to speak about him as much as he did last week and in such a negative way.
Gibson is not the type of player Trapattoni favours for his functional Irish team but I'm not sure he had to hear career advice relayed via a journalist from his international manager.
He was in the team because Ferguson made 10 changes. He used to be able to get away with this when he had a better squad but he didn't last night and now the trip to Ibrox becomes treacherous indeed.