Sport Soccer

Saturday 20 January 2018

Dion Fanning: Ferguson about to make fading Rooney pay for sins

The striker is heading on a path well worn by Beckham and Keane, writes Dion Fanning

There is a dullness to Rooney's game now and an awareness of the effort involved that never existed when he mixed ferocity and grace’
There is a dullness to Rooney's game now and an awareness of the effort involved that never existed when he mixed ferocity and grace’

On Friday, Alex Ferguson was on surer ground.

He might not have been 'distraught' as Mike Phelan put it on Tuesday night but by the end of the week, he was taking on a familiar enemy. Not Rafael Benitez, although his refusal to engage was a dismissal in itself – "I'm not going to kick anyone when they're lying down. That's not my style" – but the press.

On Friday, Ferguson was alive again, banning journalists from his press conference, issuing denials about the Wayne Rooney story, making promises that have been made before and which ultimately carried no weight.

In 2003, David Beckham was 27 when Alex Ferguson concluded that Beckham was less of a footballer, more a figure of cultural interest and, perhaps, a man who threatened his authority at the club merely by his presence.

In 2003, a United statement insisted that Beckham would be at the club the following season. The denials from Real Madrid were even louder with Florentino Perez declaring "Never, not now, never, never!" when asked if they would sign Beckham.

Ultimately, Madrid would consider that they signed Beckham for 'peanuts', with Peter Kenyon restricted in his ability to negotiate by Ferguson's desire to get rid of the player. Rooney doesn't have the marketing ability of Beckham but he was once touched by greatness as Beckham never was.

In an unfair world, Rooney at 27 has less to offer Europe's elite than Beckham did at the same age or even as he does at 37. United's willingness to sell might drive the price down but so does the fading of Rooney's talent and the sense that somewhere it got lost.

United may be more interested in re-signing Ronaldo than allowing Rooney to decline on their watch.

There is a dullness to Rooney's game now and an awareness of the effort involved that never existed when he mixed ferocity and grace to destroy teams. Ferguson insisted last week that Rooney is entering his prime and was a victim of "tall poppy syndrome" but in the past, he has often considered it his role to cut players down to size.

Logically, Ferguson should be correct. Yet if Beckham, a more natural athlete than Rooney, can fade as a footballer before he is 28 then Rooney can as well. He has not been distracted by fashion houses but he has been overcoming natural urges throughout his career. The image of him trying to drink a beer while he watched United play Chelsea at Old Trafford in 2010 has always seemed significant. Not because he was drinking one beer while out injured but because he was acutely aware of how it would look and still went for it.

Since then there have been sessions and other stories and the player has looked like a weary pro which, in some ways, he is.

Rooney made his Everton debut when he was 16 and he hadn't turned 17 when he slammed in the winning goal against Arsenal to end a 30-match unbeaten run for England's champions. That's how long ago it was.

Ferguson might not have been waiting to turn on Rooney since the player confronted him in the autumn of 2010. Ferguson put up with a lot from Roy Keane over the years but never wavered in his belief that it was the right thing to do until Keane's on-field performances couldn't compensate for the ongoing tension. At that point, Ferguson was ruthless.

He may have decided that Rooney would pay for his defiance in 2010 but if Rooney was still capable of sustained brilliance then he would let it slide. When Ferguson and Rooney appeared on MUTV in 2011, Rooney mimed Bend it like Beckham by re-enacting Ferguson's flying boot. "This is going to cost you," Ferguson joked.

If Rooney had returned to the form of a couple of years before then these words would have been irrelevant. The decision to leave him out on Tuesday may well have been tactical but, at his peak, Rooney was more important than any tactical considerations.

The Nani sending-off and the Rooney story have masked United's failure to hold the lead and perform convincingly with 10 men against Madrid. All teams train for these scenarios but maybe United only prepare for playing with 10 when they have lost a man fairly. When it is an injustice, they fall to pieces.

While Ferguson was rallying the crowd, Mourinho was whispering sympathy to the manager while sending Luka Modric into the game. The sending-off allowed Modric the room to dominate but Mourinho would probably have made the substitution even if United had 11.

Ferguson was entitled to claim that his selection was successful tactically but he will also be dismayed at Robin van Persie's failure over both legs

Ferguson still appeared to be distraught on Friday when he reflected that it was hard to "keep your faith" at moments when European success is taken from them by forces beyond their control.

Ferguson dislikes anything to be beyond his control. It has been the secret of his management and the key to his enmities. Rafael Benitez spoke truth to power in 2009 when he complained about Ferguson's behaviour. This was an attempt to prevent referees from, as he saw it, being overwhelmed by the pressure at Old Trafford. When Nemanja Vidic was sent off and Liverpool were awarded a penalty a couple of months later, he could claim to have succeeded.

But United triumphed ultimately that year and Ferguson will soon be reflecting on a 20th title for the club.

Things were never as good for Benitez again but he will not crave sympathy from Ferguson. Today United can continue the charge for another league and cup double but they will have to get over the sense that last Tuesday so much was lost.

Rooney's future at Old Trafford won't be secure simply because the manager praises him in a March press conference or dismisses reports that he doesn't talk to the player as "bollocks".

Ferguson will know that Rooney at his best would have been guaranteed selection for a game against Real Madrid.

Ferguson has taken on whatever forces he felt he should in the cause of Manchester United which, essentially, is the cause of Alex Ferguson. He may still hope that Rooney will return to form and he may think the journalists who reported the growing distance were wrong. He won't care if they turn out to be right or if, in the summer, Manchester United agree to sell Wayne Rooney.

On Tuesday night, Sky went live to Alex Ferguson's press conference, transmitting an empty chair for some time. It was possible to think that this was Alex Ferguson's press conference rather than the preliminaries and the manager had simply spontaneously combusted.

"There's nothing wrong with losing your temper for the right reasons," Ferguson said on Friday. Ferguson has been losing his temper at the right time throughout his career. Last week, he was as righteous as ever. In a bad week for Manchester United, the manager's determination to fight on, even at 71, went unnoticed. He will consider that, at least, a triumph.

Manchester United v Chelsea, ITV1, 4.30

Irish Independent

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