Sir Alex Ferguson has displayed many emotions in his long and successful career as manager of Manchester United, but he has never looked crestfallen before. That, however, was precisely the demeanour of the grand panjandrum of Old Trafford during a press conference yesterday at which he confirmed that his star player, Wayne Rooney, wants to leave.
After the 1999 European Cup final, in which United beat Bayern Munich by scoring two goals in injury time, a joyfully disbelieving Ferguson summed up the vicissitudes of the game by declaring to an interviewer: "Football, bloody hell!" It seems he has been similarly wrongfooted, this time less happily, by Rooney's determination to leave the club where the player has won just about every honour that an English footballer craves.
Ferguson insisted that he had no idea why the 24-year-old striker – who was bought for around £25m from his boyhood club, Everton, in 2004 – was refusing to sign a new contract, reportedly worth £150,000 a week. "We're as bemused as anyone can be," said Ferguson, looking, indeed, as bemused as anyone can be.
However, he also admitted that Rooney first indicated at the end of last season his desire to play elsewhere – before allegations surfaced that he had cheated on his wife, Coleen, with prostitutes – so the bemusement has evidently been building up for some time.
Perhaps he felt that he could change Rooney's mind, although he conceded yesterday that the player seems "adamant". The pair have not had an argument, he added, rather disappointingly for all those who have been entertaining an image these past few days of the not notably Zen-like Rooney, who comes from a Merseyside boxing family, being treated to the tough Scotsman's celebrated "hairdryer" treatment.
Ferguson operates on the unshakeable basis that he knows best for Manchester United, and that no player is bigger than the club. More often than not he is proved right, as when he booted out the talismanic Roy Keane and David Beckham.
This time, though, the boot is on the other foot. The former United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel once said of Ferguson: "There are thousands of better coaches. But management? The handling of men? There's nobody better." His inability to handle the Rooney situation as he would wish is the reason he looked crestfallen yesterday.Reuse content