James Lawton: In Ferguson's hour of need Rooney has let him down

 

Manchester United yesterday officially relegated the Wayne Rooney affair to the status of a piece of passing discipline, something earned by their best and most rewarded player and swiftly delivered by the club.

Now the principals, Sir Alex Ferguson and his errant player, are said to be simply moving on.

But to where? It is hard to believe that it is not merely to some extremely shallow and treacherous ground. Equally difficult is the rejection of the theory that something vital, though perhaps already under siege, has gone out of the club's key relationship.

We are talking, of course, about that fundamental strength of every professional partnership, the quid pro quo of men under pressure who resolve at the most basic level to watch each other's back.

That was a service Ferguson might have expected from a player he had protected from the worst of his own folly for seven years as United approached an utterly pivotal point of a critical season. Instead the manager famously reluctant to put aside old grievances, and least of all feelings of betrayal, was confronted at training by a player who was transparently incapable of performing his duties.

United and Rooney's agent say the matter is closed, as they were bound to, but some doors are not so easily shut. Not if you are someone like the manager who has built his career on the belief that you are either with him or against him and that the ground between those positions is of little account if you happen to be fighting for your lives at least once a week.

When he lost heavily to Manchester City early in his United reign, Ferguson was inconsolable for a while. He hadn't merely lost a football match to fierce rivals, he had let down his people, those who invested so many of their hopes in the fortunes of his club. He said he felt like a criminal, an imposter.

Now that team, City, the one that more than two decades ago had merely inflicted some fleeting embarrassment, stands as a huge obstacle against the prosecution of the final phase of his brilliant career.

Deprived of such a key player as Nemanja Vidic, worried about the inconsistencies of his expensive replacement for the rock-like Edwin van der Sar and the lack of both dynamism and authority in midfield, Ferguson could at least be optimistic that his greatest potential asset, Rooney, might hit one of his better veins of form at such a vital point of United's most challenging season since they regained the pinnacle of the European game four years ago.

Instead he felt he had to drop Rooney from the team that lost to bottom-of-the-table Blackburn, then watched him play at Newcastle like some parody of one of the world's most talented players. That Ferguson should then withdraw his most gifted attacker with 15 minutes still to go before greeting him on the touchline with a glare that might have impressed Robert De Niro, simply compounded the sense of deep frustration.

If you cannot rely on your best man when the going is at its toughest, where indeed do you turn?

For Ferguson the options – along with old certainties – have been dwindling so fast in the last week or so that the cry of Sunday's rival Roberto Mancini for financial reinforcement from the Middle East, so as to cope with a shortfall of squad resources, is at the very least a small gust of light relief.

If City, of all people, are feeling the pinch, where does that leave Ferguson? He is confronted, as never before, with the task of rebuilding his team on the run, or, as of now, a full-scale retreat.

One experienced football man, and Ferguson confidante, certainly put the Rooney issue into a sobering perspective yesterday. “In the past,” he said, “Alex has been able to deal with such situations and still get the job done because he has had enough experienced people to turn to. He might say goodbye to Cantona, Beckham, Stam or Keane, but he knew he had people around who could step into the leadership of the team, saying, 'Look at me, this is what we need to do', Right now the Rooney situation is just part of a wider problem.

”At Newcastle the other night he must have wondered where people like Scholes and Gary Neville and Van der Sar were when he needed them so badly. Obviously Rooney's behaviour was a blow at a particularly bad time but in Ferguson's experience there is always a situation that needs to be sorted out and there's never a good time or a bad time. There's always the need to push on at Christmas-time and then do the same in April but, as I said, in the past he's always had enough people to get the job done. Now he knows that he has to strengthen his team in a hurry.“

The promise of fresh funds from the Glazer ownership is no doubt welcome but some might say it has been critically delayed.

United were plainly in need of major refurbishment after their extended moment of truth against Barcelona in the European Cup final but the big signing, the compensation for the departure of Scholes and the clear evidence that at the very highest level Ryan Giggs was no longer a sure-fire guarantee of significant influence, never came. Now, talk of a move for another veteran, Chelsea's apparently time-expired Frank Lampard, may be rejected by United for the moment but it only highlights one of the most easily identifiable United weaknesses.

It is in the midfield, along with a defence where no one has begun to fill the hole left by the retired Van der Sar and the injured Vidic.

You may say it is not a point at which to jettison someone like Rooney, a player who in the best of his times can give a team momentum in any situation, as he proved with his stupendous goal in last season's League match at Old Trafford when City were threatening to take control with the quicksilver David Silva. This might be true in the most desperate times, especially when the main players of Europe are still engaged in Champions League duty, but what do you do when your best player adopts the demeanour of sullen disinterest, and shows up for work without the means to get it done?

Surely you measure his commitment to the cause and the example he is setting to players of half-formed talent and competitive experience? Certainly Ferguson is not new to such a dilemma. When he concluded that David Beckham had disengaged from the central thrust of the team's ambition, when he saw the possibility that the celebrity lifestyle of his player had become more important than the chores of a professional footballer, the manager's action was swift and irreversible.

Many Old Trafford customers were indignant – and so was much of the nation. Ferguson absorbed that pressure with not so much as a backward glance. He also went out and picked up – for around £12m – someone called Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is a pattern that is certainly not impossible to imagine again as Ferguson fights to re-seed both the talent and the spirit of his team.

His seeing Wayne Rooney, at 26, as more a part of United's past than its future would certainly be shocking, but then one of the cornerstones of football success has always been a certain consistency. While still just three points from the top of the Premier League, and against a manager bizarrely pleading poverty, he is not in the worst possible place to re-announce some of his deepest convictions.

One has always been the requirement of his players to show that they are not only good but that they care. The suspicion still has to be that Wayne Rooney may have flouted this demand once too often.

Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice