For a moment, it seemed that Sir Alex Ferguson was about to read from the single sheet of paper which he had just pulled from his inside jacket pocket. But the Manchester United manager has never tended to keep to a script and the message he was set to impart about Wayne Rooney was of more significance than that anyway, so after 15 seconds or so he cast his notes aside.
What followed instead was six minutes and 34 seconds of talk like none other in this manager's 24 long years at Old Trafford – a soliloquy which will be remembered long after he, too, has left. Desolation, bafflement, a sense of betrayal: a little of each tumbled from him as he spoke, in the self-same Old Trafford conference room where an 18-year-old Rooney was first presented as a United player, six years ago.
This is a manager who has been in the midst of a period of retreat and alienation from the British press which has rendered that relationship almost entirely broken in the past few weeks. The answer he spat out when this newspaper asked him about the nature of Rooney's ankle injury, in Valencia on 28 September, encapsulated things. "You want me to describe every ligament? Christ!" Now we know he was coming to terms with the fact that the services of Rooney were already lost.
We expected more of that biting sarcasm, Ferguson's weapon of choice when cornered, after he walked into this room – and we might have heard it, had Rooney's most justifiable reason for wanting to leave Old Trafford, namely his perception that United are not preparing to replace the old guard of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, been plainly articulated by his representatives.
But instead, Rooney has chosen to make plain his break with this club by wrapping it up in insinuations – which his representatives have allowed to take hold – that he has become alienated from his manager. As The Independent reported on Monday, the relationship between player and manager has never been the real problem and the timeline now provided on events proves the fact. The critical phone call from the player's agent, Paul Stretford, to United chief executive, David Gill, informing Gill that the 24-year-old wanted away, came on 14 August, long before Rooney's life, game and fitness began to descend into chaos and his relationship with Ferguson deteriorated. To blame the manager was a stunt, to evade accusations of greed. As Ferguson so shrewdly put it yesterday: "It's an easy one to say you've fallen out with the manager. It's a very easy one to say that."
Those words came from the heart, but don't take away the impression that yesterday this was purely a cry from that place. When Sir Alex Ferguson calls on his club's in-house TV station to interview him on the subject of a departing player, as he did yesterday, there is a good reason. Resigned to the exit of a player United can ill afford to lose, Ferguson now finds himself engaged in a struggle for the hearts of supporters. Many will see another of the club's totemic players leaving, perhaps for less than the cost of the club's interest payments, as a sign of decline.
Ferguson delivered himself to high ground well beyond Rooney's manoeuvring as he fought his own corner. "Since the minute he's come to the club, we've always been a harbour for him – any time he has been in trouble, the advice we have given him, we have done nothing but help him," Ferguson said. "I was even prepared to give him financial advice, many times."
The United legend – a mighty weapon – was drawn into service. "This is a club which bases all its history and loyalty and foundation of trust between player and manager and club, and has for many years, before Alex Ferguson. Since the days of Sir Matt [Busby], that's what it's founded on. So Wayne has been the beneficiary of that help, just the same as Ryan [Giggs] and Paul Scholes and all the players."
It is United's failure to invest in replacements for those two which, in part, has agitated Rooney and there was an intriguing clue in what Ferguson said yesterday that the player has told him as much. "Last year, we could have created history by becoming the first team to win the League four times in a row, which has never been done before," Ferguson said. "That doesn't tell you this team is falling apart or anything like that, but that represents a challenge for us."
A defence of sorts. But it is when Ferguson suggests United will reward Rooney more than any club in the country that the argument falters. "David Gill was prepared to offer the best terms offered to any player in this country," he said. "We realise and recognise the quality of the player. That's why negotiations were started early on in the summer, two years before his contract was up, to extend that contract."
But here is the core of the issue: even the 100 per cent increase in salary would only take Rooney to a salary of a £180,000, which would be £40,000 a week less than Manchester City's Yaya Touré. This is one piece of high ground to which United are not willing to climb. And from which Rooney is not willing to step down. Follow the money and you'll reach the motive.
Our sympathy cannot be boundless for a manager who has flourished so long by parading a financial muscle to which lesser clubs – including Everton, when Rooney left six years ago – cannot hold a candle and is possibly preparing, even now, to break Liverpool by taking away their own prime asset, Fernando Torres. But it was hard to dwell on contradictions as a masterpiece was wrapped up.
Tonight's match programme cover features another striker, Javier Hernandez, headlined with the words "The rise and rise of Chicharito". How Ferguson would love his soon-to-be prodigal son's successor to be anointed against Turkish opposition, just as Rooney himself was with that hat-trick against Fenerbahce in November 2004. But whether he achieves that or not, nothing will eclipse his manager's command performance.
Key dates: How the rooney saga unfolded
16 July 2010 United's chief executive David Gill meets Rooney's agent Paul Stretford and is told the player wants to sign a new deal.
2 August Rooney pictured smoking and urinating in the early hours outside a nightclub in Manchester city centre.
14 August Gill calls Ferguson to tell him Stretford says Rooney will not sign a contract.
Mid-August Ferguson calls Rooney into his office and the player confirms he wants to leave.
5 September News of the World claims Rooney has relationship with two prostitutes.
11 September Ferguson leaves Rooney out of team to face Everton citing 'terrible abuse' – 'We don't want to subject him to that'.
14 September Rooney turns his ankle against Rangers in the Champions League.
26 September Rooney brought off after an hour in 2-2 draw at Bolton.
28 September Rooney does not travel with squad to Valencia. Ferguson says ankle injury will see him miss United's next two games.
29 September Rooney has ankle scan which Ferguson now says reveals minor damage.
4 October Rooney plays in England v Montenegro and tells press he's never been injured.
16 October Rooney on the bench against West Brom.
17 October Rooney's representatives let it be known he will not sign a new contract.Reuse content