A working relationship based on mutual respect may now be broken beyond repair
Manchester United yesterday officially relegated the Wayne Rooney affair to the status of a piece of passing discipline, something earned by their best and most rewarded player and swiftly delivered by the club.
Now Alex Ferguson and his errant player are said to be simply moving on.
But to where? It is hard to believe that it is not merely to some extremely shallow and treacherous ground. Equally difficult is the rejection of the theory that something vital, though perhaps already under siege, has gone out of the club's key relationship.
We are talking of course about that fundamental strength of every professional partnership, the quid pro quo of men under pressure who resolve at the most basic level to watch each other's back.
That was a service Ferguson might have expected from a player he had protected from the worst of his own folly for seven years as United approached an utterly pivotal point of a critical season. Instead the manager famously reluctant to put aside old grievances, and least of all feelings of betrayal, was confronted at training by a player who was transparently incapable of performing his duties.
United and Rooney's agent say the matter is closed, as they were bound to, but some doors are not so easily shut. Not if you are someone like the manager who has built his career on the belief that you are either with him or against him and that the ground between those positions is of little account if you happen to be fighting for your lives at least once a week.
When he lost heavily to Manchester City early in his United reign, Ferguson was inconsolable for a while. He hadn't merely lost a football match to fierce rivals, he had let down his people, those who invested so many of their hopes in the fortunes of his club. He said he felt like a criminal, an impostor.
Now that team, City, the one that more than two decades ago had merely inflicted some fleeting embarrassment, stands as a huge obstacle against the final phase of his brilliant career.
Deprived of such a key player as Nemanja Vidic, worried about the inconsistencies of his expensive replacement for the rock-like Edwin van der Sar and the lack of both dynamism and authority in midfield, Ferguson could at least be optimistic that his greatest potential asset, Rooney, might hit one of his better veins of form at such a vital point of United's most challenging season since they regained the pinnacle of the European game four years ago.
Instead he felt he had to drop Rooney from the team that lost to bottom-of-the-table Blackburn, then watched him play at Newcastle like some parody of one of the world's most talented players. That Ferguson should then withdraw his most gifted attacker with 15 minutes still to go before greeting him on the touchline with a glare that might have impressed Robert De Niro, simply compounded the sense of deep frustration.
If you cannot rely on your best man when the going is at its toughest, where do you turn?
For Ferguson the options -- along with old certainties -- have been dwindling so fast in the last week or so that the cry of tomorrow's rival Roberto Mancini for financial reinforcement from the Middle East, so as to cope with a shortfall of squad resources, is at the very least a small gust of light relief.
If City of all people are feeling the pinch, where does that leave Ferguson? He is confronted, as never before, with the task of rebuilding his team on the run or, as of now, in a full-scale retreat.
One experienced football man, and Ferguson confidante, certainly put the Rooney issue into a sobering perspective yesterday. "In the past," he said, "Alex has been able to deal with such situations and still get the job done because he has had enough experienced people to turn to. He might say goodbye to Cantona, Beckham, Stam or Keane, but he knew he had people around who could step into the leadership of the team. Right now the Rooney situation is just part of a wider problem."
The promise of fresh funds from the Glazer ownership is no doubt welcome but some might say it has been critically delayed.
United were plainly in need of major refurbishment after their extended moment of truth against Barcelona in the European Cup final but the big signing, the compensation for the departure of Scholes and the clear evidence that at the very highest level Ryan Giggs was no longer a sure-fire guarantee of significant influence, never came. Now, talk of a move for another veteran, Chelsea's apparently time-expired Frank Lampard, may be rejected by United for the moment but it only highlights one of the most easily identifiable United weaknesses.
It is in the midfield, along with a defence where no one has begun to fill the hole left by the retired Van der Sar and the injured Vidic.
You may say it is not a point at which to jettison someone like Rooney, a player who in the best of his times can give a team momentum in any situation, as he proved with his stupendous goal in last season's league match at Old Trafford when City were threatening to take control. But what do you do when your best player has the demeanour of sullen disinterest, and shows up for work without the means to get it done?
Surely you measure his commitment to the cause and the example he is setting? One demand from Ferguson has always been that his players show that they are not only good but that they care. The suspicion is Wayne Rooney may have flouted this once too often. (© Independent News Service)