Sir Alex Ferguson has found many a way of quashing Wayne Rooney stories, down the years. There was one of the fiercest deployments of the hairdryer ever seen in a press conference, eight years ago, when some mild prodding about a challenge the forward had recently made on Tal Ben Haim, then of Bolton Wanderers, so angered him that the tape recorders were sent cascading across the floor amid a hail of expletives. The room temperature became equally uncomfortable when a temporary blip in the 20-year-old Rooney's form was raised a year later. "Are you hoping I'm going to tell you 'that's the end of Wayne Rooney'," Ferguson said. "You want me to say something to give you a good headline don't you? Wayne's your No 1 seller and, without him, you wouldn't sell half as many papers…"
Today was always likely to be different. The Manchester United manager is a wise operator who knows that raising hell about the reporting of his relationship with Rooney would only fan the flames. So it was a sanguine Ferguson – though not one looking entirely relaxed – seeking to put to bed the idea that there was a problem with the striker, whom United are understood to be ready to dispense with if they receive an offer in excess of £20m this summer.
Usually, Ferguson opens with injury news and a few introductory remarks, though today brought a much longer preamble after a week dominated by reports of Rooney's imminent Old Trafford exit and of his sometimes strained relations with the manager. The Independent, which reported the latter notion, though not the former, is one of two newspapers to have been excluded from the manager's press conferences, as a result. The banning order briefly became a part of the story today after Ferguson mentioned it – which gives you some idea of the circus he is up against every day of his life. The manager has come to detest the circus so much that he holds a deep belief those who write about his club are scavengers, seeking only to make money out of it. It makes reporting the place a little like covering the Vatican, at times, except that Ferguson has never taken to Twitter in the way that Pope Benedict did. Even reporting incontrovertible facts can incur the manager's wrath and bring exclusions. There is a constant weighing of consequences. Thursday's reporting in these pages was not undertaken lightly.
The significance of Rooney's omission from the United starting XI against Real Madrid, to make room for Danny Welbeck, was grossly exaggerated, Ferguson said. "Do you want to get rid of the nonsense first or do you want to talk sense?" he began. "The issue which you're all going on about which is absolute rubbish in the papers. There is absolutely no issue between Wayne Rooney and I. To suggest we don't talk to each other on the training ground is absolute nonsense." This notion has not been suggested anywhere this week, though the impending exit of a player whose £250,000-a-week contract Ferguson must soon decide whether to upgrade, with two years left to run on it, certainly has. Rooney is not leaving, the manager insisted.
Asked if the 27-year-old would remain at the club for years, he declared that there was "absolutely no problem with that. He will be here next year. You can get my word on that. There's no issues at all with the player. He understood the reasons for [me] not playing him [against Madrid] were completely tactical. And I think we were right. We don't always get it right but I think we did get it right."
For his part, the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, was maintaining the same line on Rooney which he adopted when his club were circling, two years ago – namely that he admires him deeply. "I think Rooney is one of the best strikers in Europe but it is difficult for him to leave Manchester United. It would be hard," Mancini said.
Ferguson, who once told us that he wouldn't sell Real Madrid a virus, let alone Cristiano Ronaldo, and maintained that David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy were going nowhere, did not allow the Rooney subject to go off in many other directions. There was a tense moment when he was boldly asked "could you say what the issue is with his fitness" and to explain his frequent references, returned to minutes before the Madrid game, about Rooney needing "a game or two" to attain match fitness after injury. Ferguson frowned. "I think he does need a lot of football. He is that type. He has always been that type. It's always been the case," he replied. The manager suggested he may be a less common presence at press conferences and that his assistant, Mike Phelan, would be getting more of that work, having been sent up on Tuesday in place of a Ferguson who was said to be in "no fit state" – as Phelan put it – to discuss Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir's dismissal of Nani. "He is very good at press. I'm going to use him more," Ferguson said, with an explanation for hanging back which was at odds with Phelan's. It was "a nice time to have a chat and nice glass of wine with Jose [Mourinho] and relax a bit".
Sunday brings a manager with whom there will be no such conviviality, with Rafael Benitez standing in the way of a first FA Cup triumph in nine years for United. There wasn't a huge amount of sympathy for the current plight at Chelsea of the Spaniard, of whom Ferguson once declared: "I would need to read more of Freud before I could understand all that went on in his head." That was the day before Benitez's Liverpool side won 4-1 at Old Trafford, in 2009, with Torres operating at heights he has arguably never scaled since. "I read about Freud when I was at school and university," Benitez replied that night.
Ferguson will be without Phil Jones until Reading's arrival next week and will also be trying to put behind him the feeling, which he articulated today, that three referees have blotted United's Champions League history. They are the Russian Valentin Ivanov, against Porto at Old Trafford in 2004, Nicola Rizzoli who dismissed Rafael da Silva against Bayern Munich six years later, and now Cakir.
There is some circling of the wagons going on, which is likely to make United, their European exit still raw, a tougher prospect on Sunday than the one Benitez encountered four years ago. "It's not easy to take but then in the analysis of the cold light of day you realise that at Manchester United you just have to get on with it," Ferguson reflected. "There's nothing that can be done now..."
Roy Keane was swatted away like a fly, when his suggestion that Nani was rightfully dismissed was mentioned. "Look, there are a lot of panelists," Ferguson said of the man who was once the heartbeat of his team. "I'm the manager of Manchester United. It doesn't matter who talks about Manchester United – we just have to get on with our job."
Rooney will almost certainly start on Sunday, though Ferguson would not say as much. "I'm not prepared to give away my team. Why should I?" he asked. "Why I should help anyone? We don't do that."