Sir Alex Ferguson's youngest players have always been afforded the protection of their manager, but rarely has the Scot been as impassioned as he was yesterday in defending Wayne Rooney, who was caught on television slapping Tal Ben Haim during Sunday's match against Bolton.
The Manchester United manager was furious at suggestions that the swipe Rooney took at Ben Haim, hardly the most potent blow this former schoolboy boxer will have landed, should be punished with a Football Association ban. Instead, Ferguson suggested that Rooney's reputation as the country's greatest young talent was attracting the kind of attention which would not burden other less-celebrated Premiership footballers.
However, the prospect of a three-match ban for violent conduct will overshadow Ferguson's 63rd birthday on Friday, one day after the FA's disciplinary committee convene to review any outstanding incidents from the Christmas period matches. Should they decide to punish Rooney for the clash during the 2-0 victory over Bolton, which was missed by referee Dermot Gallagher, United will face a difficult choice on whether to take the ban or launch an appeal.
Were they to accept a three-match ban, United, who face Aston Villa away tonight, would lose Rooney for the Premiership matches against Middlesbrough, and Tottenham and their FA Cup third-round home tie against Exeter City. If they were to appeal, United risk losing Rooney, one of only two remaining fit strikers, for such crucial games as the visits to Arsenal or Liverpool.
At United's Carrington training ground yesterday, much of Ferguson's anger was directed at Ben Haim whom he accused, with justification, of exaggerating the effect of the hand that Rooney pushed into the Bolton player's face. But the scale of his rage at the manner in which he said Rooney had been singled out for criticism suggested that any FA disciplinary action would be fiercely resisted.
Ferguson, who thumped the table to emphasise his point, said: "You never know what could happen with the FA because it's Manchester United we're talking about. They should look at the Bolton player, but we will have to wait and see on that one. Wayne Rooney did nothing to deserve being brought up before the FA, but because it's Wayne, and because it's Manchester United, then I can understand the focus.
"But the biggest concern should be what the other player did. He was down on the ground for two minutes and he is the one that should be up before the FA, not Rooney. What he did was a disgrace and it's him that should be on a disrepute charge. He rolled around as if he was in agony.
"All I hear about is what Wayne Rooney did. Did he punch the lad? No, he didn't. He just brushed him off."
There are serious concerns among senior figures at United that the scrutiny of Rooney's behaviour is approaching impossible levels for a 19-year-old to handle, especially after the relentless tabloid coverage of his break in Paris last week with fiancée Coleen McLoughlin. Despite his reputation, Rooney is treated at Carrington as one of the squad's junior players but there is a fear at United that, outside the club, it has been forgotten he is still a raw teenager.
Ferguson can scarcely afford any more losses from his squad after Gary Neville and Eric Djemba-Djemba, both with flu, joined Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha, Wes Brown, Quinton Fortune and Kleberson as absentees. Chelsea's Jose Mourinho has already questioned the wisdom of today's fixtures so soon after traditional Boxing Day games, yet he has only William Gallas doubtful for the visit to Portsmouth.
After witnessing the defeat of United in October, and the narrow 1-0 win for Arsenal earlier this month, Fratton Park will represent a sharp test for the form of leaders Chelsea. As Ferguson has said, Mourinho's side are yet to travel and be tested in the North-west, but first they must negotiate one of the toughest away fixtures that the South has to offer.
Against Fulham, Arsène Wenger had Freddie Ljungberg back for the first time since the defeat of Birmingham City on 4 December when the Swedish international was brought down by serious migraines. To prevent them, the midfielder has been banned from drinking red wine or eating cheese over Christmas.
"Earlier in the month I was told to take 10 days off but we had the Chelsea game coming up and I really wanted to play in that one," Ljungberg said. "I rushed it a bit and had another attack and had to take it easy for a week. I'm not really worried. It is concerning when it happens though. I throw up, lose my vision and also lose all the feeling in my hands. It's quite severe in that way."Reuse content