Thursday 14 November 2019

Even the untouchables cannot escape from the exclusion zone

Dion Fanning

Alex Ferguson's decision to ban a couple of journalists for reporting that Rio Ferdinand was injured had a sense of life-affirming defiance about it. Fergie is in his eighth decade but remains determined to take stances, perhaps to take even more stances now when people might be wondering if he can take any.

Where once he would ban somebody who questioned the business practices of his son, now he goes after those who have the team news.

Of course, he was always liable to forbid an entire corporation from speaking to him so he has not necessarily become more extravagant. Yet, his actions serve a purpose in that while people are asking if he is still as crazy as he's ever been, fewer are asking if he has mellowed.

The British newspaper industry might have missed a trick when they didn't somehow get Ferguson to appear at the Leveson Inquiry.

Ferguson would have exposed a desire to suppress newspapers that would probably have resulted in some sympathy for the tabloid press. He would have revealed some of their tricks, but, in front of Leveson, some of his own great and arbitrary stances would have been revealed. Soon even the shifty Paul McMullen would look like a reasonable man. Under the relentless onslaught from Ferguson, McMullen would look like a professor of ethics at the Columbia School of Journalism, just searching for the news that's fit to print. A truth-seeker.

Fergie came to his own conclusions about media standards some time ago, handing out his version of the super-injunctions -- "youse are all fucking idiots" -- of which his latest banning order is only a fine example.

There was a glimpse of this approach to management in the clip of the new Liverpool documentary Being: Liverpool (perhaps the first in a series -- Conceding Stupid Goals: Liverpool. Wearing Silly T-shirts: Liverpool. Becoming Experts on the Rioplatense Dialect: Liverpool).

In the clip Brendan Rodgers interrupts what he is saying to tell Raheem Sterling he will send him home if he makes another unnecessary comment.

Once you could overcome the unease of the filming itself, Rodgers' approach was commendable. Sterling disputed that he had said anything in the first place but Rodgers wasn't interested in his point of view.

He was only interested in letting him know where he stands.

Other managers have been glimpsed over the years trying to win these arguments or to force the player to admit he did wrong. These are exhausting and fruitless quests.

In Rodgers' approach, it was possible to hear echoes of Ferguson. When Ferguson takes a stance, he doesn't want a debate which may not be the same thing as saying he isn't interested in a fight.

When Ferguson turned up at Lee Sharpe's house all those years ago, it wouldn't have been in his interest to be handed some new information which said they weren't having a party and that there were only two bottles of beer in the house.

Ferguson has always been interested in an argument but not as a reasonable exchange of views, certainly not when he's dealing with footballers or reporters.

Wayne Rooney, of course, is the latest who is said to have come down on the wrong side of the argument and, given Manchester United's history in these things, the number of people lining up to say Rooney is not for sale would only confirm the view that his time is limited.

Again Ferguson's words in the relaxed setting of Trinity College a couple of years ago hang over his relationship with Rooney.

"If I lose control of these multi-millionaires in the Manchester United dressing room then I'm dead. So I never lose control. If anyone steps out of my control, that's them dead."

He could sustain a relationship with a dead man while Rooney remained the most important player on the field for Manchester United. Those days are over, perhaps temporarily, and the news may only be getting through to Rooney who is said to have returned from his summer break overweight and now has another two months to recover from injury.

In that time, he may become United's greatest player again in his absence or United may find a style without him, although they continue to search for Paul Scholes' replacement, something they overcome by playing Paul Scholes and very soon possibly genetically modifying Paul Scholes.

Rooney may soon have to find a way to fit in any way he can. This is an astonishing collapse for a man who for the last few years was one of the few leaders in the United dressing room -- Rio Ferdinand's particular brand of eejitry masquerading as personality can be discarded.

Was it this personality that led to a challenge to Ferguson's control or was it other flaws in Rooney's personality that brought Ferguson to the point where he had to take another stance? Rooney -- like so many others -- had become part of the problem.

In January, Ferguson summoned the memory of Paul Gascoigne when he complained that Rooney suffers media intrusion of the same degree.

Media intrusion was the least of Gascoigne's problems as his life without media intrusion has sadly demonstrated.

Rooney insisted last week that he is at United to stay but he may be entering deeper into what Joey Barton called the "unpretty" side of football life. Last week, Barton became the first man in history to complain about the unfairness of life while boarding a private jet to the south of France.

Rooney will be able to accommodate this unfairness in his life but if he is still the man Alex Ferguson bought then it will become a source of deep resentment. If he has changed, then he may consider it a trade worth making.

The only thing we know for certain is that whatever is said by Rooney and Ferguson gives little indication of the truth. There may be more banning orders but Ferguson could be ready to make an even more significant exclusion.

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