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Rooney stepping ever closer to the point of no return

W ayne Rooney would take high rank on a scroll of players Manchester United fans hoped would stay forever, behind Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, but ahead of David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The attachment is measured by the outrage when anyone dares point to the evidence that a parting may be on the way.

This week some veterans of an area known as the Wembley mixed zone thought they heard intimations of a rift between Rooney and Alex Ferguson, who has always extolled the principle that the manager must be the most powerful individual at a properly functioning football club. As speculators and charlatans multiply in the Premier League, Ferguson has grown ever more entrenched in his belief that no single player can be allowed to undermine the authority of the manager, either through the scale of his fame or a disputatious nature.

The comment that set the hare running after England's 0-0 draw with Montenegro was a simple "I don't know". Rooney had denied he was carrying an ankle injury and was asked why Ferguson had made public statements to the contrary. "I don't know" was interpreted as a challenge to his leader.

At best, it was naive for him not to see that contradicting Ferguson would be seen as provocative. At worst, he was asserting his independence as part of a scheme to leave Old Trafford for Real Madrid.

The following day a couple of newspapers claimed Rooney had suspended talks on a new deal that would raise his weekly wage from £90,000 to £150,000. Resist the urge, please, to cry media conspiracy, because Rooney's intentions are a matter of legitimate conjecture, given the slow pace of his contract negotiations and the sense that, at 24, he will want to sign one mega-deal before his precocity catches up with him in his late 20s.

An Everton debutant at 16, he is not going to be running round like Raul in his 30s. Nor is he likely to be the face of Barbour or Twinings Tea when he stops playing, so the pressure is on to pile up earnings now. A familiar measure of brinkmanship will be present in his dealings with the United board, but there is also authentic concern that he will court a silly-money move to the more tax-advantageous haven of Spain.

We know Ferguson has refused to indulge him. There was shock throughout the club that his personal discipline should deteriorate so sharply and produce accounts of him drinking, smoking and urinating in the street, never mind the carnal urges that placed such a strain on his marriage. The disappointment at United was not moral in nature. It stemmed from a belief that he had violated the team ethic and Ferguson's unambiguous professional code.

Against this chaotic backdrop there was bound to be ambivalence about awarding him a £60,000-a-week pay rise. Some supporters see only the tinsel around the name and think there is no greater duty than bowing to a star player's every demand. But United's past says there is a point of no return, a line which even the most venerated player can't cross. If he does, and the club defer, power is inverted and the pillars crumble.

This tenet was applied by Ferguson when Van Nistelrooy became disruptive and detached, Keane tried to appoint himself the de facto manager and Beckham treated the club as a corporate vehicle. In each case, the manager risked a counterblast from the supporters but pressed on anyway, sure of his ground, sure that United would always outlast any individual and could renew themselves. After Van Nistelrooy, remember, a new title-winning side was hewn around Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Rooney tripped himself up at Wembley on Tuesday night. If he is fully fit -- and he says he is -- what possible excuse could there be for his listlessness, his poor first touch, his lack of dynamism and thrust? If not the body, then maybe the mind? It stretches credulity to think domestic turbulence depressed his form all the way from March to October. If severely damaged confidence is responsible, Rooney is clearly not the imperturbable street kid with the iron ego we thought he was.

For the first time since he became one of the world's top five players, his attitude disappoints, his demeanour raises doubts about his temperament. For technique to desert him so dramatically and for so long is ominous. The length of the slump, with only the occasional flourish, forces us to revisit our declarations about his potential for greatness. He entered yesterday's game against West Brom needing a season-altering performance to keep these doubts at bay.

He wears the look of one who has told himself he now holds all the power, when the reality is that Fabio Capello would probably drop him if England had any credible alternatives, Real Madrid may be thinking his best years are already behind him and Ferguson would win any power struggle, as he did most conspicuously with Keane and Beckham. Rooney should read some history.


Sunday Independent