Roo, ah Cantona: Fergie's new icon

Playmaker role may be future for a Great Eight
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The Independent Football

There was a change on Old Trafford's forecourt that was simple to quantify. Several dozen Manchester United supporters milled around, and already one player predominated on the backs of the red shirts. A couple of days previously you could not move for mini Ronaldos and Van Nistelrooys; now the name of choice was Rooney.

There was a change on Old Trafford's forecourt that was simple to quantify. Several dozen Manchester United supporters milled around, and already one player predominated on the backs of the red shirts. A couple of days previously you could not move for mini Ronaldos and Van Nistelrooys; now the name of choice was Rooney.

Eight has been the figure of lesser dreams in United's history. George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham were the magnificent sevens, but the next number in line has been the province of worthies like Nicky Butt, who may have won championships but who hardly shifted shirts over the counter. Not now. You had to move through a thicket of Rooney red at Old Trafford this week, and a nifty unofficial seller of mementos was already peddling "Great 8" T- shirts on the corner of Sir Matt Busby Way.

There was a change too in the mood of Sir Alex Ferguson who, with the £20m-plus-plus acqui-sition of Wayne Rooney to supplement his team, had the beam of a boy who had just been bought the present he craved. "It's put a smile on your face," someone suggested, which brought the instant retort: "Och, I've just found someone's purse."

It was a classic defence response to make a joke to cover an unexpected gap in the Manchester United manager's forbidding barricades, but there was no disguising Ferguson's content. He had missed out on the pieces of the jigsaw he needed when Paul Gascoigne moved from Newcastle United in 1988 and Alan Shearer preferred Blackburn Rovers four years later; this time he had got his man. "You have a gut feeling and an instinct about these kind of players," he said, "and when one comes along like that you can't not get him. It's too important.

"We went as high as we could in terms of price. Twenty million [the figure could rise to £27m] is a hell of a lot of money for an 18-year-old, it's twice what we paid for Ronaldo. Transfer prices have gone down slightly over the last year since we bought Cristiano, so we've paid a lot of money for a boy."

It is a pile of cash that might still be resting in Old Trafford's well-lined coffers if Rooney had not been dreaming of being the next Paul Rideout as a boy. The race intensified when Newcastle United fired the gun, but Ferguson had been in pursuit of his prey ever since one of his backroom staff, Jim Ryan, had returned from a youth-team game at Everton's Bellfield training ground more than four years ago. "Jim came back and said, 'This is a player', and we tried to do something about it but he wanted to stay at Goodison," Ferguson explained.

Ferguson first saw Rooney in the flesh when the teenager gave David May the runaround in a reserve game, but Ryan's judgement was fully vindicated when the boy wonder came on as a substitute to play a 19-minute cameo in a match at Old Trafford in October 2002 that is otherwise remembered for United scoring three goals in the last four minutes. "He battered us," Ferguson said before adding in wonderment, " 16 years old. You don't forget things like that."

Nor will it be forgotten if the super-latives hurled Rooney's way this past week fail to materialise in deeds. Ferguson described his new charge as the best English player for the past 30 years at the press conference to announce the transfer, but afterwards he made a comparison that will resonate with United's fans far more.

"I think he can make the same impact here as Eric Cantona," he said. "Eric was different because he came when we hadn't won the League for a long time. There was a different emphasis, but he was the man of his moment, a very important moment. Now we have won some titles and we're trying to step up some notches, trying to get a better level of play, and when a player of Rooney's class comes along you have to make a move for him.

"This club has always had the best players, people who entertain, thrill and excite. But they're also players with great courage, that was the making of the Laws, the Charltons and the Bests, they didn't just have the ability to play, they had the courage to do it."

Go back three years and there was another player whom Ferguson compared to Cantona, Paul Scholes, and although Rooney will not be supplanting immediately the man known on the Stretford End as the Ginger Prince, it could be his ultimate role at Old Trafford will be as a creator as well as a finisher.

Ferguson came down sharp on a suggestion that United's midfield has gone from being the strong to the weak link - "I think Scholes and Keane are quite capable" - but Scholes is 11 years older than Rooney, and as there is the problem of also trying to fit Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Alan Smith into the striking places, it could be the vacancy, albeit a few years' hence, will appear further back. "He could play in midfield," Ferguson conceded. "The most important thing is that he plays in the position where he feels best until he settles in. That's fair to him, he's only 18."

Scholes with extra goals is a pleasant prospect for any manager, but less appealing is the recent publicity surrounding United's new signing. If Scholes had been seen leaving a brothel it would be because he had been in to ask for directions to the library, but Ferguson believes there are strong enough influences to keep Rooney on the straight and narrow. "There are a lot of good, solid, stable professionals in our dressing room. The habits never change with the Nevilles, Scholes, Keane and Giggs.

"You never hear about them in the papers because they're good pros, and that will rub off on the boy. There have been some bits of publicity, which to be honest with you haven't been that sensational, but we'll get to grips with him. There's no problem with that.

"There's always a statement when you buy a player simply because the fans recognise you want to do something and you're not prepared to sit on your laurels. That's how it should be. The fans should always be demanding more."

The demand and the stage are there, and Euro 2004 suggested the talent is ready too. Great 8 or great pretender? We will begin to find out when Rooney's injured foot is repaired, probably by 20 September when, coincidentally, Rio Ferdinand is also available after an eight-month suspension. The opponents, of all teams, are Liverpool.