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We need to talk about Wayne

Do you remember when Andre Villas-Boas was a busted flush, a manager revealed to be sorely out of his depth who would shortly be replaced by Guus Hiddink? You should, it was about a week and a half ago, before a couple of 3-0 wins led to equally rash talk about turning points and vindication.

Can you recall when it was conclusively proved Arsene Wenger had 'lost the plot' as Arsenal dwindled into complete irrelevance? That was back in the prehistoric era known as August when Manchester United defeated the Gunners 8-2.

I know it's a long time ago but can you remember what was being said about United back then? I'll refresh your memory. That they had 'moved to the next level', that they had actually benefited from their Champions League final thrashing by Barcelona because the Spaniards, 'showed them what's required,' that the 50 million lashed out on Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea was money well spent and that Wayne Rooney was about to overtake Lionel Messi as the best player in the world.

Now that really does seem like something from another age. Of course it's easy to take the mickey if you're a smartarse like me who has the luxury of waiting till the group stages are over before commenting on the Champions League. Football writers have to call it as it happens and the situation tends to be so fluid from week to week that a certain number of hostages to fortune are bound to be offered.

Nevertheless, United's pitiful exit from Europe's main event shows that the hype surrounding the club after a couple of big early-season wins was spectacularly ill-founded even by the standards of football punditry. Their comprehensive defeat by FC Basel was a bit like Fianna Fáil's catastrophic performance in the general election. On one level you could see it coming but they had defied logic so often you presumed they'd pull through one more time.

Elimination from the Champions League before the New Year is a stunning reverse for United, not least because they'd been drawn in The Group of Life. Neophytes Otelul Galati would struggle to beat Shamrock Rovers, Benfica managed to lose four games out of six in last year's group stages, including a 3-0 loss to the mighty Hapoel Tel Aviv. FC Basel haven't got past the group stages since the Champions League began. You'd have expected the English champions to get through with games to spare.

They didn't, so the search for scapegoats will start. The Glazers will be the number one targets and we can expect much predictable protest against the owners whose miserliness is evident in that paltry 50 million they allowed Alex Ferguson to spend over the summer. This obsession with club owners and the money they spend is eloquent testimony to the embourgoisification of football. Prawn Sandwich Man mightn't know much about the game but boardroom drama is meat and drink to him.

In any event whatever relevance United's expenditure has to their eclipse by Barcelona it has nothing to do with the failure to take more than one point from six against Basel. Perhaps instead the club's decline can be traced to the moment just over a year ago when Alex Ferguson bent over backwards to appease Wayne Rooney when his star player threatened to leave the club because United 'couldn't match his ambition'.

Even at the time the reasons why Ferguson should ensure Rooney stayed at Old Trafford didn't seem solely connected with football. Because the spectre of the striker moving across town to Manchester

City was raised we were told United must keep him or 'lose credibility', as though they were a political party rather than a football team. Ferguson appeared to heed these siren voices and all the tabloid bullshit about 'Noisy Neighbours'. He capitulated to the player's demands.

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Ferguson had got rid of David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane on the basis that no player was bigger than the club. Now it appeared Rooney was the exception. When Ferguson was told he'd win nothing with kids, he said 'watch me'. This time he bowed to the conventional wisdom and implicitly accepted the idea that United would have to live up to Rooney's standards rather than the other way around.

He has been poorly repaid. Because ever since clinching his improved financial deal Rooney has been a largely peripheral figure at United. There have been occasional marvellous moments but no real sustained effort. When United needed him in Basel, Rooney, not for the first time, went missing. His sole contributions were to miss a sitter and whinge at the ref after the final whistle like an English tourist complaining that a Spanish waiter has given him the wrong change.

You could point out that by contrast Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do it for their clubs week in, week out and often produce their best stuff when the team really needs it. But it's foolish to even make that comparison, Rooney isn't in that class. And last season he proved far less vital to United's title campaign than his striking colleagues Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez though oddly enough the articles in the English press wondering what was wrong with Berbatov, top scorer in the Premier League, outnumbered those wondering what was wrong with Rooney by ten to one. Except there actually wasn't one.

The myth of Rooney as one of the world's leading footballers seems absolutely impervious to the impressive body of evidence to the contrary. More and more the things written about him in his home country are like those articles you used to read over here about how Brian Cowen had got his mojo back and was about to be his real impressive self any day now. Witness the near nervous breakdown they've been having across the water about the European Championships being denied the early adornment of Rooney's presence. It's as though those two World Cups where he didn't manage to take a shot, let alone score a goal, never happened.

When you examine the English media's attitude towards Rooney, it's clear we're dealing with pathology rather than logic. They big up the player to ludicrous heights for the same reason that their music press used to laud Donovan as the new Bob Dylan back in the '60s. They want a genius of their own because they feel it's their right.

Fabio Capello, whose willingness to dump on John Terry last year showed he views staying on the right side of the English media as perhaps the most important requirement in his job, knows this. That's why he told last week's disciplinary hearing that he was at fault for Rooney's sending-off against Montenegro because he should have taken the player off before that. Rooney was 'distracted' apparently. This really is We Need To Talk About Wayne territory.

I wonder if Ferguson is haunted by thoughts of what would have happened had he sold Rooney to City. The astronomical fee would have enabled him to do vital rebuilding work at Old Trafford but, just as importantly, it would also have prevented City from signing other new players with that money. I wonder if he thinks about the future which never was, one where Rooney huffs and puffs and sulks at Eastlands while David Silva and Sergio Aguero turn out for the Red Devils. Because while Rooney will have some great moments before the season is out, a hat-trick against Wigan perhaps, a couple of stunning long-range strikes in games when United are 2-0 up, there won't be enough of them.

The biggest irony of all is that Rooney's greatest cheerleaders are those who perceive him as an embodiment of sturdy English yeoman values as opposed to the poncy unreliable 'Continental' footballing culture personified by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. This perhaps arises because, just as people think that the plain girl must have a great personality and the fat man must be jolly, they imagine a rugged-looking Scouser must be all grit and spirit.

But with his sublime technical ability, questionable work rate, dubious temperament and 'when the going gets tough the tough start sulking' attitude, do you know what Wayne Rooney is?

He's a 'Continental'.


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