From Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside in the early days, then, as his authority was cemented, to Paul Ince, David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Carlos Tevez, Sir Alex Ferguson has always been prepared to move on good players, even great ones, who challenge him either directly or through the way they live. Wayne Rooney, it appears, may be about to find that he is as dispensable as the others.
There are times when this refusal to countenance dissent has weakened the team in the short term, such as when Stam was forced out, but even at 70 years of age Ferguson takes the long view. Rooney would be very difficult to replace, but it is harder to control a dressing room when some of its members believe themselves more important than the boss.
Ferguson has said that a manager can never lose an argument, suggesting he has not, but this is only partly true. Players have more power now and he was unable to hold on to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerard Pique. He has also been prepared to compromise when he needs a player. As Keane recently revealed, he and Ferguson had many disputes when Keane was in his prime. Ferguson always found a way to make peace, to accommodate his warrior captain. Until, that is, Keane's powers began to wane. Then Keane was shown the door. As he said last month, “the difference then was that I was 34”.
Rooney is only 26, and still growing as a player, but his performances lack the reliability of Keane. In the last couple of years Rooney's form has either been red hot, or ice cold. While some players – John Terry would be the obvious example – play to par regardless of what maelstrom may be enveloping them, extraneous factors seem to weigh Rooney down. When that happens his body language betrays a lack of desire and he seems to draw within himself before lashing out, as with England in Montenegro, in apparent frustration.
The split between Ferguson and Rooney is understood to date back to the infamous transfer request a year ago. Then Ferguson gave in, swallowing his pride to welcome Rooney back into a dressing room the quality of whose occupants Rooney had questioned. As when he settled with Keane, Ferguson had considered the bigger picture and he seemed to be rewarded. In the second half of last season, Rooney scored nine goals in 13 Premier League starts as United regained the title. All seemed well.
Rooney began this campaign scoring at a rate superior to a goal a game, but then came the arrest of his father and uncle for alleged involvement in a match-fixing scheme. The following day he played against Montenegro, scored, but was then dismissed. Since then he has scored five goals in 15 games. In itself that would not be a problem, not least because he played on several occasions in midfield because of United's lack of alternatives, and did well there. What appears to have infuriated Ferguson is the Christmas night out with Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson, an allegedly dishevelled and disinterested appearance at training the following day, and subsequent sulky performance when recalled at Newcastle.
While Ferguson has shown in the past he is prepared to give way when dealing with star players – his initial reaction to Eric Cantona's lunge into the crowd at Selhurst Park was to sack him – there is a line he, and any other manager, must draw. When a senior player becomes mutinous he has to be moved on. Otherwise he will become the focus of a negative clique in the dressing room, and a bad example on the training ground. The latter aspect is crucial at United. A hunger for success is not easy to sustain. For years Ferguson has succeeded in driving United on to title after title, and one of the means by which he has done so is through a training ground culture in which senior players set the lead. Keane, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs ... all outstanding trainers, as were Cantona and Beckham.
New players, and youth players, join United, see how hard the stars work, and follow suit. Giggs is still there, but the others are gone and Rooney is now one of the senior pros. At a time when United's young players have been accused of being complacent Ferguson cannot allow a diminution of commitment. That Ferguson felt he had to discipline Evans and Gibson, too, will not have helped Rooney's cause. It may be Ferguson has decided Rooney has to go because of his stature, not despite it.
Highs and Lows: Rooney's United Reign
Aug 2004: Joins Manchester United from Everton for £25.6m, in what remains the highest fee paid for a teenager.
Sep: Scores hat-trick on United debut, in a 6-2 Champions League win over Fenerbahce.
Apr 2005: Hits stunning long-range volley against Newcastle United in the Premier League.
Sep: Receives first red card for United, sent off for sarcastically applauding the referee at Villarreal in the Champions League.
Feb 2006: Scores twice in 4-0 League Cup final win over Wigan to gain first piece of silverware.
Aug: Sent off against Porto in pre-season tournament, six weeks after World Cup red card against Portugal.
Oct: Scores hat-trick in 4-0 win at Bolton.
May 2007: Hits 23 goals to help United to first Premier League title in four seasons.
May 2008: Secures second title as Manchester United retain Premier League, before helping club win third Champions League, beating Chelsea on penalties in Moscow.
Mar 2009: Dismissed in 2-0 defeat at Fulham, given second yellow for throwing ball away before kicking out at corner flag on his way off the pitch.
May: Wins third Premier League title in three years, unable to stop United losing 2-0 to Barcelona in Champions League final.
Jan 2010: Strikes four in a match for the first time, scoring all United's goals in 4-0 win over Hull. Finishes fine season with 34 goals from 44 appearances, winning FWA Footballer of the Year and PFA Player's Player of the Year.
Mar: Injures ankle in Champions League quarter-final defeat at Bayern Munich. Returns within a week but only scores twice more for the club in 2010.
Aug: Allegations of marital infidelity emerge in tabloid newspapers. Fails in attempts to place an injunction on the story's publication.
Oct: States intention to leave United following a dispute with manager Sir Alex Ferguson, but later changes his mind and signs a new £250,000-a-week contract.
Feb 2011: Scores with stunning overhead kick to win Manchester derby.
Apr: Scores fifth Manchester United hat-trick, in 4-2 win at West Ham. Swears at camera while celebrating and receives two-match ban from FA.
May: Wins fourth Premier League title in five years at Old Trafford. Scores United's only goal in 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in Champions League final at Wembley.
Aug: Scores treble in 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal at Old Trafford.
Sep: Hits back-to-back treble at Bolton, his seventh United hat-trick, starting season with 11 goals in nine games.
Dec: Dropped from the team to play Blackburn and fined £200,000. following night out. United lose 3-2.
Where Rooney might go: Transfer destinations
Estimated value £50m
A move to the Spanish capital would enable Rooney to link up with his old winking mate, Cristiano Ronaldo. However, with the Portuguese winger, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema all banging in the goals for Jose Mourinho's side this season, and Mesut Ozil pulling the strings from just behind, Rooney could struggle to get a game.
Having previously raised doubts about Manchester United's ability to continue to attract the world's best players, Rooney would surely have no such qualms were he to move to the Catalan giants (and there would be the added bonus, as with Real, of Champions League football). With David Villa out for the remainder of the season with a broken leg, Barcelona could do with another striking option.
The Rossoneri's ongoing pursuit of Carlos Tevez suggests that they are in the market for a forward, and with Milan's reputation for fashion Rooney could perhaps be tempted to move in search of some new clothes to compliment his recently-acquired hair – with his wife also enjoying the shops. Furthermore, marital infidelity is apparently less frowned upon in Italy – if Silivo Berlusconi is anything to go by.
The Qatar-backed French side would have no trouble affording the England forward, and would doubtless be attracted to the prospect of making such a marquee signing having recently failed to woo David Beckham over from the States. Rooney could link up well with French goal-machine Guillaume Hoarau – although it is hard to imagine him opting to hide his magnificent barnet under a beret.
Rooney reportedly flirted with the idea of joining United's noisy neighbours during his contract dispute in late 2010, while City manager Roberto Mancini has recently bemoaned the club's lack of resources up front. It would be an act of treason, but could the lure of financial rewards, plus the chance to link up with the talents of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri et al, be enough to tempt Rooney?
And who might replace him?
Internazionale's Wesley Sneijder has long been linked with a move to United, and his preferred position just behind the striker would make him a like-for-like replacement for Rooney. If Milan were the forward's destination, Brazilian Alexandre Pato could potentially be used in some form of swap deal. Lille's sought after Belgian Eden Hazard would also be able to fill the creative void left by Rooney's departure, while Spurs' Luka Modric could feature. Or there's always a certain Carlos Tevez...