Sir Alex Ferguson insisted yesterday that Wayne Rooney's mindset would not prevent him from shining against Rangers in the Champions League tonight and insisted he had no regrets about leaving the striker out of the Manchester United side which dropped points at Everton three days ago.
Rooney was in high spirits when he trained at Carrington yesterday morning, laughing and joking with Ryan Giggs, and Ferguson rejected suggestions, fuelled by the comments of his own assistant Mike Phelan on Saturday, that the 24-year-old's state of mind had caused his exclusion at Goodison Park, rather than the febrile atmosphere he would have encountered there.
"I left him out for the reasons I said on Saturday," Ferguson said as he prepared for the start of the Champions League campaign. "I am not going beyond that. I told the [Sky] TV interviewer on Saturday why I left him out. I was not going to subject him to that nonsense at that ground. It was a benefit to our team. I have no regrets at all. I did the right thing."
Ferguson suggested Rio Ferdinand would play his first game of the season at Old Trafford tonight, and the manager unexpectedly said that Nemanja Vidic had replaced Gary Neville as permanent team captain, because he is the one contender for the role on whose regular fitness he can depend. It had been generally expected that Ferdinand, the current England captain, would succeed Neville, who remains club captain. But Ferguson's decision suggests that he does not have great confidence in the physical condition of a defender whose chronic back problems reduced him to 20 United appearances last season.
Ferguson's move further supports the case for Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, a successful national captain in Ferdinand's absence, taking the England armband permanently. "With all due respect to Gary [Neville's] time at United, he knows and I know, we don't play him every week," Ferguson said. "I am looking for someone who is going to play every week as part of the criteria to be captain at our club." Neville will chalk up his 600th United appearance if he plays tonight. If Ferdinand starts, it will be only his 13th United appearance this calendar year. "Having trained so well over the last few weeks, [Rio] is desperately needing a game now. We welcome him back," Ferguson said.
But it is Rooney who is facing all the scrutiny, just as he did in his last Champions League encounter – against Bayern Munich in April, when Ferguson's desperation to progress in the tournament saw him deploy the injured striker just 30 hours after declaring that his bad ankle sprain, sustained in the first leg, meant there was "no chance" of him appearing. Rooney lasted 55 minutes.
Ferguson has taken heart from Rooney's goal for England in Basle seven days ago – his first from open play since that first leg in Munich last March: "Scoring was as good a boost to him as anything. We expect a good performance from him. We look forward to that." Rooney, whose hat-trick on his debut against Fenerbahce came six years ago this month, also loves the European nights at Old Trafford. "I don't know if the situation will inspire him," Ferguson added. "But he will be looking forward to it."
Manchester is in a state of high security today, with Rangers fans being bussed to Old Trafford via a holding station at Wigan Athletic's ground, following the violence that erupted when city centre TV screens showing the Scottish club's 2008 Uefa Cup final appearance in Manchester failed to operate. Ferguson appeals for calm in tonight's match programme. "[It] was hardly helpful when, for whatever reason, the [screens] failed," he writes. "It's no excuse for the appalling behaviour of a certain section of fans, but it must have been mightily frustrating for everyone. All I can say is that I have every confidence that we can stage a trouble-free game."
Smith: 'I wanted schoolboy Rooney in Everton first team'
Rangers manager Walter Smith, briefly Ferguson's assistant at Old Trafford in the months before Rooney's arrival at United, has first-hand knowledge of the player. Rooney raced through the youth ranks at Everton during Smith's time as manager there between 1998 and 2002, and the 63-year-old reflected a little ruefully yesterday on how he was told the player, then 15 years old, could not be made available to him during the difficult 2001-02 season, which saw Smith sacked in March and replaced by David Moyes.
"I wanted to put [Rooney] in the first team," Smith recalled. "But we weren't allowed because he hadn't left school. [After] I got the sack, they allowed him to leave school and Davie Moyes was able to play him in the last two games of the season." Moyes did name Rooney in Everton's squad for the trip to Southampton in April 2002, though the same school rules applied so Rooney, an unused substitute at the Dell, finally made his debut against Tottenham on the opening day of the following season.
"He was an outstanding young player, he was probably the best I've seen in my career," reflected Smith, curtly rejecting a suggestion that the player's fight to save his marriage – after allegations of a relationship with prostitute Jennifer Thompson – would affect him tonight. "I don't think it'll work to our advantage. Wayne Rooney plays for Manchester United and our job is to overcome that and that's what we have to do," concluded Smith, who has Steven Whittaker fit to play in place of Kyle Lafferty.Reuse content