Fergie must convince United's owners to sign world-class players as Rooney warns: Buy big or I'm off
Wayne Rooney is not for sale.
Not now at any rate. He does not
want to leave Manchester United this month. And manager Sir Alex
Ferguson does not want him to leave this month. Sources inside both
United and the Rooney camp – reacting to a newspaper headline
proclaiming that Ferguson was 'set to let Rooney go' – have confirmed
this. And yet that is not the whole story.
One week on from The Mail on Sunday's revelation that Ferguson had dropped Rooney and fined him a week's wages – around 200,000 – following his Boxing Day night out with his wife, Coleen, and two other players and their partners, certain relationships at Old Trafford are clearly still strained.
Changing faces: Rooney has gone off the boil after an impressive start to season
But the most damaging fault line is not in the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney – although that, like any manager-player dynamic, has its ups and its downs – but in the relationship between Rooney and the club's American owners, the Glazer family.
Specifically, Rooney is still unconvinced by the extent to which the Glazers are prepared to spend big sums of hard cash to recruit the best players available and so keep United in contention to win the biggest trophies – the Premier League and the Champions League – against the challenge of their major rivals, today's FA Cup opponents Manchester City, along with Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.
This is the rift that dare not speak its name, the disconnect between a player who, at 26, feels he has five years left at the top of his game and the ambitions of the owners of his club. And it is the rift that was at the heart of Rooney's spectacular fall-out with the club – rather than with the manager – in October 2010, when it seemed the striker was close to leaving Old Trafford.
Still United: Rooney and Ferguson have dismissed reports of a rift
That episode was not, in truth, about a row between Ferguson and Rooney but about Rooney wanting assurances United were in the market for the biggest names. And that episode ended only when Joel Glazer, joint chairman of the United board, personally called Rooney and promised him that he could realise all his ambitions at United, alongside world-class players that the Glazer family would continue to fund.
That was good enough for Rooney to put pen to paper on a new contract and life at Old Trafford resumed normal service. What happened next – or, more accurately, what did not happen next – illuminates the background to the incredible events of the past seven days.
United made three significant signings in last summer's transfer window: Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers, at what increasingly seems a bargain initial price of 16.5million, Ashley Young from Aston Villa for around 16m and goalkeeper David de Gea from Atletico Madrid for around 17m. What they did not buy was an established, experienced, top-rank player – a Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric or Samir Nasri – to fill the midfield abyss left by the retirement of Paul Scholes.
Out of sorts: United have lost their last two games against Blackburn and Newcastle
United will justifiably argue that they were not about to smash their wage structure to sign a player who made pay demands in excess of the 200,000 a week or thereabouts that Rooney earns as United's best-paid player. And, in part, it was such demands that undermined the attempted captures of Sneijder, from Internazionale, and Nasri from his club at that time, Arsenal.
But underneath that reluctance to spend lies the fault line between Rooney's ambitions and the owners' actions. That, in turn, has an effect on Rooney in footballing terms because instead of Ferguson being free to play the England man up front where he wants to play or as part of a two-pronged strike team with one forward tucking behind the other, Rooney has found himself, more often than not, in midfield.
'Listen, Wayne just wants to play football,' says somebody familiar with Rooney's mindset. 'He'd play in ****ing goal if he was asked.'
Madchester: Rooney wants United to match the ambitions of City
But the reality is that while at Manchester City Roberto Mancini has been allowed to pour petrodollar millions into the marketplace to recruit established stellar names, Ferguson has not been able to go even close to matching that, for reasons of fees or wages or whatever. Sergio Aguero (38m), Edin Dzeko (27m), Yaya Toure (24m), David Silva (24m) and Nasri (22m) are just five of the TEN players who have cost City at least 20m each in transfer fees alone in the Sheik Mansour era. In the same period, United have signed just one: Dimitar Berbatov, in 2008.
Of course, this will lead to City having hurdles to clear in relation to UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules but United could spend a lot more on players without falling foul of the Fair Play requirements.
Ferguson has always maintained that money is not an issue, that the Glazers have never refused him a player. That may well be true but the hard evidence Rooney sees is a Manchester United being overtaken as the dominant force in England by an up-and-coming City, who wanted to sign him.
City would almost certainly be interested if and when Rooney did come on to the market. United's statement on Friday, reacting to a newspaper report that the club had not actually read at that point, said: 'The manager and the club are committed to Wayne Rooney and Wayne is committed to the manager and the club.'
Rooney's simultaneous (to the same minute) assertion via Twitter that his 'future is with Manchester United, and the club and I am totally committed', was so obviously choreographed, right down to the phrasing, it yelled of a club needing to show unity, not necessarily spontaneous Rooney emotion.
The bust-up over the Boxing Day night out was real. Ferguson was angry, apparently, after Rooney's performance in training the next day, hence the dropping and fining of the striker. Paul Adams, the manager of the up-market Vincent Hotel, in Southport, where Rooney dined and stayed on Boxing Day, maintains that the player went to bed at 12.30am on the night in question, despite photographs appearing to suggest that it was later.
Adams, a business partner and friend of Rooney's England team-mate, Steven Gerrard, says Rooney, a regular customer, had a meal in the hotel restaurant, spent 15 minutes in the bar and was 'wellbehaved and not drunk'.
The fall-out between manager and player was part and parcel of football life. It was not the end of the road. But neither did it mean nothing. It just meant something other than the obvious.