For a few days this week Sir Alex Ferguson tried a different approach to managing Manchester United.
As the Wayne Rooney saga took grip and his club looked vulnerable for the first time in a generation, Ferguson looked hurt and betrayed. He appealed to people's better nature. He even mentioned the cows in the other field which were better than his cows – or was it the other way around?
Come yesterday lunchtime and he was right back in full dictator mode: United were the biggest club in the world and anyone who said otherwise was either lying or a member of the dreaded press.
If Wayne Rooney's U-turn in his contract was football's most remarkable three-day turnaround then United's sudden change of attitude – aided by a helpful bout of amnesia – ran it a close second. With the ever-willing MUTV there to facilitate the volte-face you could be forgiven for thinking that the general turmoil of the last week's public dispute between manager and star player had just been a figment of the imagination.
With Rooney's contract signed at lunchtime, the old propagandist machine was revved up to soothe the worries of the faithful with a series of interviews including Ferguson, Rooney and Rio Ferdinand.
Certainly Ferguson's demeanour told you that he was even having trouble recalling this time when Rooney was refusing to sign a contract. When it was put to him that certain elements of the press had suggested United had looked vulnerable last week, he looked baffled. "I don't know where that was coming from," Ferguson said. "You have got to wonder about that. You see the record since he [Rooney] has been here?"
Good question. Where on earth were all those bad vibes coming from? Where had people got the impression that United were in trouble? It surely could not be anything to do with Ferguson's seven-minute discourse on Tuesday at his helplessness in the face of a recalcitrant star. Or his accusation that Rooney had shown "a lack of respect" to his team-mates. Or his admission at being "dumbfounded" at the behaviour of his most famous player.
In a world organised according to United, with the help of their supine in-house television station, the bad memories just fade away. Ferdinand, noticeably quiet on all matters relating to Rooney and United until then, identified the culprits. "There will be a lot of people walking around who will want to talk to us who were very negative towards him [Rooney] and the club and they have to change their tune a little bit."
Curse those negative people. Although they would have to go some way to be more negative than Rooney himself who accused his own team-mates of being sufficiently inadequate for him to bother wasting any more of his time playing alongside them. But what's a harsh word among friends? So much easier to blame someone else.
"Everyone understands that people go through contract negotiations and stuff happens and what-not," explained Ferdinand. "I have been there myself so I understand fully what goes on." And when he puts it like that, who are we to argue?
At least Ferguson had the honesty to say that Rooney had apologised to him and the squad for his spectacular mutiny. But there was also a part of him that wanted to re-affirm the beliefs he had in United that had been shaken over the week. It appeared that the more times he said how "big" Manchester United were – as opposed to the faltering giant of midweek – the more likely he was to believe it.
"Once all that publicity came out about ... how big Manchester United is that resonated with Wayne quite a lot," he said. Then later, "I have been manager for the last 24 years but what happened in the last few days is a lesson to everyone how big Manchester United is."
The "bigness" of United is a touchstone for Ferguson. It is the bedrock of his belief in the club that its sheer size – in terms of success, fans and, perhaps most importantly, its wealth – is self-perpetuating and therefore indisputable.
Rooney's vow to leave was a challenge to the "bigness" of the club and so in the aftermath it was only natural that Ferguson would want to re-establish that aura, as much for himself as anyone else.
At no point in this saga has anyone from United uttered the name of their neighbours who have inconveniently transformed English football with their wealth and are the reason why Rooney's new contract is significantly bigger than it would otherwise have been. Without Manchester City and their enormous wage bill it is unlikely that any of this would ever have happened.
Like a lot of what happened last week, United are hoping that simply by ignoring City the threat from across Manchester will just go away. United have won a victory of sorts over Rooney but you get the feeling that for this particular regime this is the first of many battles rather than the end of a war.Reuse content