Ferguson backs Rooney to handle 'hostile' return

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The Independent Online

He has secured his reputation as the boy wonder of international football and a natural star of the Champions' League, but today Wayne Rooney will make the most difficult journey of all when he returns to Goodison Park for the first time. In his corner he has a manager who has faced down a few hostile crowds in his career, and Sir Alex Ferguson said yesterday that the teenage striker had assured him that he had no fears about going back to Everton.

He has secured his reputation as the boy wonder of international football and a natural star of the Champions' League, but today Wayne Rooney will make the most difficult journey of all when he returns to Goodison Park for the first time. In his corner he has a manager who has faced down a few hostile crowds in his career, and Sir Alex Ferguson said yesterday that the teenage striker had assured him that he had no fears about going back to Everton.

Ferguson added that he had not spoken extensively to his young charge about Manchester United's FA Cup fifth-round tie against Everton, other than to learn from Rooney that he wanted to play, which will have come as good news to the United manager. This weekend sees the return to fitness of not only his Dutch centre-forward Ruud van Nistelrooy but also Louis Saha and Alan Smith, although in terms of match fitness, Rooney is still United's sharpest asset.

It is only the third occasion since Ferguson assembled the quartet of strikers with Rooney's signature on 31 August that the United manager has had all of them fit and at his disposal for a match. His preparations for the Champions' League game against Milan on Wednesday, Ferguson said, were still far from his mind although it is likely that he will want to give Van Nistelrooy some match practice at least for the visit of Carlo Ancelotti's side.

"There was not the slightest temptation to leave Rooney out," he said. "Not even a bit of it. Not even a hint of it. Not even a thought of it. He is like a lot of young players brought up the right way - his temperament is first-class. His response to the big game atmosphere is incredible. He will get some boos and some stick but that's only in response to the fact he has left the club.

"It is all part of the modern game and Everton are no different to any other club in the world. We are unusual as [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes and the two Nevilles [Phil and Gary] have spent a lifetime at the club. But no other club is like that. There have been plenty of players who have left Everton and come back to play against them. We have had plenty of players who have come back to play against us. The modern-day game is like that."

For home supporters, the six goals that Rooney has struck in his last eight games for United are unlikely to make the memory of his now infamous show of devotion to Everton during the FA Youth Cup semi-final in 2002 - when he revealed the slogan "Once a blue, always a blue" on a vest under his shirt - any easier. His transfer could earn Everton as much as £27m, but it did not prevent David Moyes from warning United that they faced a "very hostile" reception at Goodison Park.

For Ferguson, a veteran of such receptions at Anfield, Elland Road and in Istanbul, the trip to Goodison was no more foreboding than Eric Cantona's return to Leeds in the 1992-93 season.

"It was a volatile atmosphere but nothing spilled over on to the pitch and, hopefully, it will be the same," he said. "But Wayne has answered all the questions that have been asked of him so far in his career. The only thing he has said to me about this game is that he really wants to play. I don't expect Everton supporters to be any more over the top [than] they would be if any other former player was coming back to play against them. There is also the fact that we have a great relationship with Everton. It's a big day for them, because of this. There has been so much talk and hype about a 19-year-old player coming back. It is an emotional thing for them. But I don't expect there to be anything other than a few boos.

"Wayne has the temperament to deal with it and I think Everton know that. At the end of the day I just hope that the game passes off the right way and nothing stupid happens. He is a competitive player, all the great players are. His discipline is not an issue. He got a three-match ban for what happened against Bolton, which we thought was absolutely ridiculous. But he's fine. He will compete and why shouldn't he? That's his job."

United sources have dismissed reports of contract talks with the Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who is signed to the club until 2008. Fifa has also apologised to Ferguson over an article in the governing body's magazine that accused the 63-year-old of considering himself "above the law" in transfer dealings.

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