James Lawton: The signing of Robin van Persie was clear indication that Wayne Rooney is no longer fit for purpose at Manchester United
Sir Alex Ferguson's fatal glare at Rooney has an air of finality
When one of Sir Alex Ferguson's predecessors was summoned to the Old Trafford boardroom to hear his fate he conjured a sharp line in dark humour.
"A nice day for an execution," Frank O'Farrell declared to a colleague. Wayne Rooney might have said something similar all these years later when he took his seat on the bench this week. But, of course, there was a huge difference.
Managers go down routinely. It is not so often that great players, or at least those in whom such a possibility is still entertained, are as starkly declassified as Rooney was before 11 club-mates went out to face Real Madrid. Still, when his wife Coleen tweeted her disbelief there was only one harsh but inevitable response. Where had she been this last year or so?
Did she not notice the increasingly restive body language of the man who three years ago still believed sufficiently in her husband to approve a new contract demand that came in the form of an ambush and resulted in a deal worth £250,000 a week? Did she not pick up a growing pattern of disapproval, the summary dropping and imposition of a £200,000 fine a little over a year ago and since then the subtly disparaging references to his need for the match fitness provided by a few more games and the special difficulties created by his body shape?
In one defining scene the mobster played by Robert De Niro in the film Goodfellas takes a long and withering look at an accomplice who has outlived his value to the firm. It was something that resembled a fatal glare and there have been quite a number of these directed at Rooney by Ferguson.
None of them came, though, with the sense of finality that accompanied Ferguson's decision to leave Rooney out of United's most important game of this and several other seasons. Analysts of the Ferguson style have been quick to point out precedents which say that such a decision is inevitably followed by some final rejection. David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy are the supreme examples of former favourites who had passed the point of reprieve, and Roy Keane, who also felt the final chill of Ferguson's disapproval, was quick to tell the nation that Rooney probably guaranteed his fate, sooner or later, when he made his contract rebellion.
Here at least though there are grounds for serious dispute. Ferguson has never been hell-bent on revenge for its own sake. Performance has always been the acid test and when he signed Robin van Persie last season you didn't have to be one of the great code-breakers to understand that above all it was a statement that Rooney was no longer considered fit for the highest purpose.
When the first signs of rift were so discernible early last year, Rooney was underpinned by the fact that he could produce the kind of feats which still made him Ferguson's most important player. The goal he scored against Manchester City at Old Trafford in 2011 came with the suggestion that in his mid-twenties he might again find some of the intuitive brilliance that once persuaded the likes of Arsène Wenger and Johnny Giles that he had the potential to be one of the great players not just of the moment but the history of the game.
Of course, Rooney will continue to produce evidence of a remarkable talent. A few days before his bitter humiliation at Old Trafford, he scored a spectacular goal against Norwich City. But plainly it did not convince his manager that he had a place against Real. If the goal was special by Premier League standards much of his other work wasn't. Indeed, the consensus was that a lot of it was laboured and when the smoke had cleared from the match against Real so seriously distorted by the red card handed to Nani, there was another blow for Rooney.
It was that Ferguson's team selection and tactical approach had proved impressively judicious. The mobility and poise of Danny Welbeck handsomely repaid Ferguson's confidence and with Van Persie so entrenched in the role of the new main man, Rooney, at 27, has surely never contemplated a less certain future.
Who knows, the effect may create a new determination as he moves towards the final two years of his sweet-heart contract. He may conjure, with more consistency, some of the best of his past, but the odds against any re-construction of the aura that was so perceptible after some brilliant virtuosity in a Cup tie against Middlesbrough six years ago have maybe never been so steep.
Then, one of his goals had the easy touch of something approaching genius and when he gunned his new sports car away from Old Trafford two youths raced through the halting traffic in pursuit. He was the Pied Piper but this week the music was gone. Wherever he goes now, or if he stays, his audience is unlikely to be ever again anywhere near so rapt.
Ferguson didn't break a spell this week. He simply imposed reality.
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