Wayne Rooney has thrown Manchester United's difficult season into turmoil by telling the club that he does not want to renew his contract.
Rooney's decision appears to have stemmed largely from his growing sense of disillusion about the levels of investment at United and his feeling that players of the calibre of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville are not being adequately replaced. Sir Alex Ferguson's claims that United can flourish by developing young players and that there is "no value" in the transfer market have seemed increasingly tenuous during the team's poor start to the season.
A United spokesman said yesterday that claims Rooney was unwilling to sign a deal were "nonsense". But Rooney has 20 months to run on his current £80,000-a-week contract, becoming a free agent in June 2012, and it does seems that he has made the club aware in the past week that he does not intend to sign a new one. The new deal was expected to take his salary to around £150,000-a week, though it is understood that he has told friends that the offer is not as good as he would like. With players such as Yaya Touré arriving at Manchester City on huge sums, even the figure United are offering seem less appealing. The allure of City to players at the top of the game cannot be underestimated and they are one of the few clubs who could pay £70m for Rooney.
These factors seem more significant than the 24-year-old's relationship with Ferguson, though that has undoubtedly been affected by his decision to drop the striker from his starting side in four games this season. Rooney made a direct challenge to Ferguson's authority after England's match with Montenegro last Tuesday – breaking with his usual resistance to speak to daily newspaper journalists and immediately contradicting Ferguson’s claim that he had been dropped from two games because of an ankle injury. He started on the bench for Saturday’s draw with West Bromwich Albion.
The prospect of Rooney leaving as early as January seems highly unlikely, since the lack of movement at that time of year would limit the amount that the club could command for him, but a departure next summer now seems a strong probability unless he can be talked around. He has always said he will play in England for his entire footballing life and his seeming willingness to leave Old Trafford – which must be tempered by the possibility that this development is part of a negotiating ploy – raises the question of which other clubs he would leave for. It is understood that his North-west family ties are an important part of the consideration at a time when he is attempting to repair his damaged marriage. Though City are the obvious possibility, they also have a huge task in bringing down their £133m wages bill down over the next two years to prevent Uefa banning them from European competition under new Financial Fair Play regulations. Chelsea have reined in their spending for the same reason.
The news contributes to the sense of Rooney’s world descending into one of chaos, since his desperately disappointing World Cup, which was followed by revelations two months ago about his relationship with prostitute Jennifer Thompson. Ferguson has himself retrenched into a position of alienation with the press, having cancelled the last three of his usual Friday press conferences. The official reason given has been his unhappiness at the reporting of his claim that Fernando Torres dived in United’s 3-2 home win with Liverpool. But he may be feeling on the defensive about his most troubled player, who has not scored in open play for United for seven months. Oddly, Sky Sports did not ask Ferguson the obvious question about Rooney’s omission on Saturday evening.
Rooney’s reluctance to negotiate a newdeal puts United and owners the Glazer family in a hugely delicate position. Though the £80m sum Rooney would probably bring in would bewelcomed by a club with a £720m debt to service, the non-replacement ofanother totemic player after Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit last year could reduce the overall value of the club.
It is also hard to see how United could develop without Rooney’s services, despite his current drop in form. In short, the striker has the potential to cause the unravelling of the club’s highly leveraged business structure.