Ferguson jumps to the defence of England pair

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For a man who professes indifference to the fortunes of the England football team, Sir Alex Ferguson issued a remarkably robust defence of Steve McClaren and Wayne Rooney yesterday, insisting the targets for vociferous criticism since the defeat in Croatia were victims of the country's embrace of hysteria and would silence their detractors in due course.

The Manchester United manager is not, of course, indifferent to the well-being of the England duo, having made McClaren his assistant during the 1999 treble-winning campaign and now as the man most responsibility for shaping the career - and reaping the rewards - of the 20-year-old Rooney.

It was therefore with a combination of inside knowledge and self-interest that Ferguson backed the pair to recover from their respective troughs, while accusing the media of seeking to destroy his £27m striker and a loss of perspective for talk of McClaren having only three more competitive games - the European Championship qualifiers against Israel, Andorra and Estonia - to save his job.

"What kind of a world is it where people think England will win easily against Croatia, who have not lost a game at home for 12 years?" the United manager said. "I don't know what world yous [the English] are in, I really don't.

"The important thing is to let Steve get on with it. He's got the ability. Steve is young but he has the experience of Terry Venables alongside him and he will be all right. There has been the usual over-reaction and some of the things being said are pretty abusive."

The abuse was not, however, confined to McClaren in Zagreb, where Rooney was subject to a gruesome tirade by one supporter as he left the Maksimir Stadium and responded by flicking a V-sign. Ferguson did not comment on the gesture but he again identified inactivity for the striker's mediocre form - though Rooney has now played eight games for club and country this season - and insisted his exposure, and its inherent pressures, was entirely of the media's making, rather than United and the player's own commercial activities.

"I don't think he played badly on Wednesday. His game is gradually coming back and it will come back," Ferguson said. "You are obviously hoping I might say that's the end of Wayne, and you're actually hoping that, I think. It makes great headlines but deep down every defender in the country knows that the lad is going to come to life, there's no question about that.

"He just needs the games and to focus on what we are telling him because young players can sometimes start to believe what other people are saying about them [which] can be self-destructive. Whether it is good or bad, Wayne is the number one seller in this country now but he is intelligent enough to understand how the machine works."

On Rooney's commercial interests, he added: "We pay close scrutiny to what Wayne does and we are not worried about it at all. Apart from the odd event in London or abroad, everything takes place in Manchester."

Evidently Ferguson is intent on playing the striker through the first sustained struggle of his prodigious career - although he will be without Ryan Giggs and Gabriel Heinze at Wigan this lunchtime and must give a fitness test to Cristiano Ronaldo - though he also defended the right of England supporters to criticise their team.

The Scot added: "The England fans paid good money to travel across to Croatia and they have every right to show their frustration but we live in an era of over-reaction to everything and sometimes it gets out of hand."