It is now more than eight years since Jose Mourinho met Arsenal’s Ashley Cole in a London hotel as a prelude to his most audacious signing, prising away one of the then Premier League champions’ most valuable assets within the space of 18 months.
In retrospect, that episode looks naïve and cost Chelsea £375,000 in fines for contravening Premier League regulation K3 which prohibits tapping up a player.
Eight years on and Mourinho would never make the same mistakes in Chelsea’s pursuit of Wayne Rooney, one of the Premier League champions’ most valuable assets. There are no meetings in public places although the stakes are just as high as when Chelsea took a 25-year-old Cole for £5m plus William Gallas – arguably one of the best value-for-money deals of the Roman Abramovich era.
Now, there is the polite disclaimer that Mourinho simply cannot talk about the subject of Rooney, before he goes on to do exactly that. At his introductory press conference four weeks ago, he enthused about Rooney as a player, in sharp contrast to, for instance, his assessment of Fernando Torres.
Today in Bangkok, the Chelsea manager was the same, explaining “from an ethical point of view” he could not discuss Rooney with the caveat that he had to be honest. And if he was to be honest, Mourinho added, then he had to say that Rooney was “a player I like very much but I can’t say much more. He is fast and direct and I like him.”
It boxes Manchester United’s new manager, David Moyes, into a corner. He is unwilling, naturally, to come out fighting because Mourinho has not pushed it too far, and the last thing Moyes needs now is a public row with Mourinho before the season starts. But the United manager will know that the signs are there: the petals strewn in Rooney’s path by Mourinho followed by the sharp retreat and plausible caveats.
“Unless I was speaking double Dutch last week I think I’ve said Wayne Rooney is not for sale,” Moyes said. “I think I’ve really covered all the things on Wayne.” He went as far as excusing Mourinho’s comments on the basis that, “Jose actually said the same thing: he doesn’t like to talk about players at other clubs”. But he will realise that they are tiptoeing around each other on this one and a decisive move will have to be made soon.
Chelsea have reason to believe that they can sign Rooney this summer. As transfer sagas go it is perfectly poised. United are resistant to selling to Chelsea, but with a player who has serious misgivings and – perhaps most crucially – two years left on his contract. Even without Chelsea’s interest there would be a major decision for United to make on Rooney’s future.