Friday 17 November 2017

Ferguson all that is holding united together

The promises that helped keep Wayne Rooney on board may now create a bitter struggle for power at Old Trafford, says Dion Fanning

Last week made only one thing clear: when Alex Ferguson talks about Manchester United, he is talking about himself.

It might be the only reasonable position for an unreasonable man to take. At Manchester United right now, it might be the only position for Alex Ferguson to take. Who else can be Manchester United? David Gill? Paul Stretford? The Glazers?

All were involved in the astonishing deal last week that ended with Wayne Rooney signing a new five-year contract at Manchester United. Rooney ended the week being portrayed as the face of greed in football. Meanwhile in Florida, the men who have saddled the club with astronomical debt slipped quietly back into the background.

Rooney and his agent Paul Stretford may have made a lot of money quickly but not as much as if they had moved to Manchester City. The Glazers are the examples of corporate greed, but their complex involvement in Manchester United is too much for some. Old United men like Paddy Crerand put the phone down when asked to deal with the complexities (he must have been confused by the end of the week) and preferred to talk about a player's greed.

It was simpler that way and only went to show that if there is one thing more pointless than asking an old pro to talk about football, it is asking him to talk about the point where football and money meet. These days they meet a lot.

Manchester United were happy last week at the end of an extraordinary seven days. But those who know the reality, know that the clock is ticking. The supporters of Manchester United who oppose the Glazers will not be distracted by these short-term fireworks. The brilliance of Alex Ferguson as a manager is all that holds United together. If one thing was clear in a murky week, that was it.

How were Rooney's ambitions met between Wednesday night and Friday morning? The last player United signed in the August transfer window was Bebe -- was Rooney told there were more on the way when he spoke to the Glazers?

Until now, the Glazers have been more astute than Tom Hicks and George Gillett at Liverpool. There were no embarrassing promises, in part because the business of Manchester United runs smoothly and has delivered success.

Alex Ferguson has backed them publicly even as they undermine his ability to do his job properly. But the Rooney deal may have delivered the smoking gun. The Glazers are supposed to have assured Rooney there will be big signings. Now there are promises to break. Are they prepared to see if Rooney has the stomach for another fight, and another week of men with balaclavas threatening him, or will they have to spend in a way that they can't afford? Does Rooney care anymore?

The day before Rooney signed his new contract, the Bloomberg journalist Tariq Panja published a story which said that the Glazers were shouldering the debts for their exorbitant payment-in-kind loans because of fear of a supporters' reaction if they used United's cash to pay some of it off. As part of the bond refinancing early this year, the Glazers have the option of taking £95m out of the club's cash reserves to clear some of these loans.

Originally the PIK loans were worth £265m but this was reduced to £138m four years ago. Under the terms of the loan, the failure to meet the terms by last August meant the interest rate increased from 14.25 per cent to 16.25 per cent. This, according to experts, would lead to an increase of about £14m on the annual £25m a year payments for just these loans.

More importantly, the interest on PIKs rolls up annually and is added to the original amount. By next year, they will owe £267m in PIK loans, an increase of £100m in five years.

With that money alone to invest in the club, United would never have had a week like last week and they wouldn't be threatened by Manchester City.

A week like last week also alarms the Glazers and those who monitor them. They may want to take the club's cash to pay off the loans but while Rooney was making noises about a lack of ambition they couldn't risk it. Now they might hope things will go quiet again.

But Rooney was almost a whistleblower. The fans would have been dismayed if he had left and disgusted if he had joined City but many will march before next Saturday's game against Spurs in protest at the Glazers. The green and gold scarf might have been a fashion accessory for some, but the most important supporters aren't following trends. Last week it also looked like they wouldn't be following Wayne Rooney. Some might have considered it a price worth paying for the truth about the Glazers to hit home.

* * * * *

Last summer changed things for Rooney. He was haunted by the growing realisation that the world would soon know about his affairs with prostitutes. His World Cup had been miserable.

In late July, he was pictured urinating in the street after a night out in Manchester. Ferguson was known to be unhappy about this and would have got that message across, reminded him of his responsibilities to Manchester United, as he put it. Yet when asked about this in Dublin last August, Ferguson, as he always has, refused to engage with the question. "I'm not getting into that."

Last Tuesday, he got into it. At one point during his extraordinary press conference, Ferguson said to the journalists in front of him. "You know more than me about it." This was as out of character as Clint Eastwood walking into a bar, suddenly doing jazz hands and beaming "It's showtime!"

Alex Ferguson is a complex man and it may be that on Tuesday, he showed his real feelings about Wayne Rooney. He may have been dismayed that a player who seemed to embody all the values he admires, as Roy Keane and Eric Cantona once had, was now apparently determined to leave the club.

If all can be made right in Wayne Rooney's world by a new contract and some comforting words about new signings, then he is not the player we thought. He is dark and driven (on Friday, his ghostwriter Hunter Davies suggested Rooney needed therapy) and that isn't going to change.

In all his revelations, Ferguson never indicated why Rooney had decided he wanted to leave. His personal life, Ferguson's reaction to the stories of drunkenness (and possibly the rumours about prostitutes) might have alienated him.

Then there was the slow dismantling of the Manchester United team.

On August 10, Manchester United signed Bebe. Ferguson spoke last week of his ability to spot potential and nobody would doubt him, his record is too good for that. But he is now so confident, he delegates the potential-spotting, signing Bebe without seeing him play. Fours days after the Bebe signing, Rooney informed David Gill he wouldn't be signing a new contract.

Bebe was not the player Rooney anticipated and he may have added to his general moroseness, something that was evident at the World Cup. Rooney's unhappiness grew until last week when it was made clear that he would be leaving.

Ferguson, as he had done when he persuaded Cantona and Keane out of retirement, worked magnificently. This time he worked in public.

"My control is the most important thing. The most important person in Manchester United is the manager," he said when he talked at Trinity College earlier this year. Some may think that control was lost last week but Ferguson wouldn't. He got what he wanted and that has always been what mattered.

By last Wednesday, while always willing to negotiate, United had taken a stance. Ferguson is always taking a stance: if Rooney wanted to go, he could, but he would go anywhere but Manchester City.

In practice, this would have been an impossible position for United to hold but as the week went on, it became clear that a move to City would be very difficult.

"People say footballers don't live in the real world, but a guy like Rooney doesn't want to be completely isolated," one players' representative said last week. "He would have to move further away from Manchester, there would be problems for his family. He would have to be careful which restaurants he went to."

The last thing Rooney needs is to become more isolated and withdrawn. A man who has represented players in dealing with United was not surprised or shocked by last week's developments. Few are within football, even if many are not enamoured of the way Stretford operates.

"It is his duty to find out what is the going rate for his player and inform the player of that," this representative said. "Your duty is to your client. Of course, problems arise if you are doing this for your own reasons."

Stretford would have made more money if his client had moved and that appeared to be his preference. Another man in football was more scathing of him. "Stretford would sell his mother a fucking donkey."

But the only club prepared to pay Rooney the money he and Stretford wanted were City and it became clear that the move was fraught with difficulty and danger.

Nobody knows how much influence the mob within a mob who showed up outside his house had on Rooney's decision but they surely influenced his thinking just as the Glazers were influencing his and Stretford's bank balance.

Ferguson was right in many ways when he talked of United after the game against Bursaspor on Wednesday night. "We have the right staff, the right manager, the right chief executive, brilliant man. There is nothing wrong with Manchester United, not a thing wrong with it."

Of course, he did not mention the owners. Those who have dealt with David Gill confirm Ferguson's view of his brilliance and he may have done much to make sure this deal was done last week.

Some remember his expertise in ensuring Roy Keane signed a new contract at United ten years ago. Things were more straightforward then but once Keane had announced he was prepared to see out his contract rather than sign a new one, Gill made it clear to the plc board that they could pay big money to replace Keane but even then they would not be sure he would be replaced. Keane got his contract and United held on to their leader.

The Glazers, under siege in Florida, knew they would have to re-invest the money from any Rooney sale and if they didn't Gill would have made it clear. This was not a Ronaldo situation where the money could be put aside for use on other matters. There would have been more questions and in a situation when they need to take cash reserves from the club, they didn't need more questions.

In football, they think fans are idiots. That is the reality behind the badge-kissing and on rare occasions it is revealed. Last week was one of those weeks. They can say one thing and do another in the belief that the mob will be won over. It is unlikely that anything will happen in this case to alter their worldview.

Rooney was an expensive sideshow. But there are supporters who won't be distracted. The Manchester United Supporters' Trust (MUST) issued a statement which tried to deal reasonably with the situation. They had remained clear-eyed all week when others were resorting to graffiti. Like the fans who brought down Hicks and Gillett, their vigilance is essential.

"Had Rooney left it would have been disastrous for Manchester United on the pitch but actually an even bigger blow to the Glazers and clearly they rightly feared a huge fans' rebellion," their statement on Friday said.

By the time Ferguson talked to the press after Wednesday night's game, the charm offensive was replaced by the merely offensive, a more familiar stance. This may have been a sign that things were changing.

"Why would I want to meet you people, the way you've behaved? You're as bad as anyone," Ferguson told one journalist. "You don't deserve to come to a press conference. Why should I bother with you, the way you behave?"

Again Ferguson was embittered by success and at that moment it should have become apparent he was close to getting what he wanted. And Ferguson wanted Rooney to stay. His willingness to allow the media to glimpse his doubt and despair on Tuesday was a ploy even if his feelings were real.

Ferguson is the man to rebuild Manchester United if people would let him and age didn't diminish him. Last week, he was as engaged as ever, as willing to fight and to negotiate and to do whatever it takes.

He may try and hold the Glazers to whatever promises were made but he will not say so publicly.

Nobody can question what Alex Ferguson has done but some wonder about his loyalty to the owners. Few know how he operates with them in private but it would be uncharacteristic if things weren't very different. In January, the world might find out.

Rooney appears to have got what he wanted but he might not know what he wants. The ennui that has settled on him needs to lift and it is unlikely that it was caused solely by the idea of playing with Bebe.

In giving Rooney what he wanted, the Glazers might have bought some time. But, as the world has learned, when men like the Glazers do the buying, somebody else has got to pay.

"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," Ferguson said at Trinity.

Has he begun to lose control? Rooney has his contract. But in the next six months we will discover who has the power.

Sunday Independent

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