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.

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