Wayne Rooney's World Cup finals recovery was thrown into even greater confusion last night when the Manchester United club doctor Mike Stone, who has been placed in charge of the England striker's rehabilitation, was sacked by the club after a dispute with Sir Alex Ferguson.
Rooney has been under the care of Dr Stone since he cracked the fourth metatarsal of his right foot against Chelsea on 29 April, and it had been agreed by the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and the Football Association that the 20-year-old would stay in Manchester for treatment by his club. Responsibility for getting Rooney fit for the World Cup will now pass to the club's assistant doctor, Tony Gill.
Last night, United insisted that the departure of Dr Stone had nothing to do with the issue of Rooney's fitness, or his potential readiness to play in Germany this summer. Ferguson's feelings on the subject of Rooney's fitness for the World Cup are not in doubt - he said in the aftermath of the injury that it was a "wild dream" to expect the striker to play for England this summer.
In a statement released to The Independent last night, a United spokesman confirmed that Stone had left the club. The spokesman said: "There was a difference of opinion on a non-football and non-clinical issue, as a result of which Dr Stone felt it is in the best interests of himself and the club for him to leave."
United were insistent that the reason Dr Stone left was a "difference over a non-clinical issue and had nothing whatsoever to do with any medical treatment to any Manchester United player".
It is understood that Dr Stone's most significant difference was with Ferguson, although he is also believed to have encountered problems with Ferguson's assistant, Carlos Queiroz.
Most important for Eriksson, however, will be ensuring that Rooney himself continues to receive the highest level of treatment at United. While there is no doubt that Rooney will do everything possible to recover in time, he is likely to be shocked by the departure of a man who has already coaxed him back to fitness following his broken metatarsal at Euro 2004.
Dr Stone, a small, portly man with a moustache who took over as club doctor in the 1998-1999 season, never sought the limelight but was an immensely popular figure among United players and particularly well liked by Rooney, who spent his first months at the club after his signing in August 2004 with the doctor, recovering from that original broken metatarsal.
Rooney is the only member of the 23-man England World Cup squad who has not been training with them this week in Hertfordshire and he was not present at the photocall at the unfinished Wembley Stadium yesterday. Instead, the striker has remained at his home in the North-west so that he can attend United's Carrington training ground every day for treatment.
The definitive scan on his right foot will take place tomorrow and will give United and Eriksson a clear idea of how good his chances are of playing any part for England this summer.
The England manager has been pinning his hopes on the scan results - expected to be released on Friday - and said this week that Rooney himself "thinks he will be OK".
Eriksson's FA doctor, the Swede Leif Sward, has also been checking on Rooney's development over the weeks since he was injured at Stamford Bridge, although United have tried to keep the number of those involved in the treatment as limited as possible.
Rooney was originally given oxygen tent sessions but they were discontinued by Dr Stone because the player complained of nausea.
The striker has also long since removed the "air boot" that gave his toe support in the immediate aftermath of the injury and Dr Stone even permitted him a trip to David and Victoria Beckham's World Cup party on Sunday night, when he is reported to have taken to the dance floor.
Having survived the fallout from the United defender Rio Ferdinand's missed drugs test in 2003, Dr Stone might have been forgiven for thinking he had been through the worst at United. His dismissal will not go unnoticed by Rooney.Reuse content