Sir Alex Ferguson deemed Wayne Rooney unable to train when he arrived for training last Tuesday morning after a Boxing Day night out, which Manchester United yesterday confirmed resulted in him being disciplined.
Rooney, who has been fined one week's wages of £160,000 by the manager, is understood to have been in on time for training at Carrington the day after the 5-0 win over Wigan Athletic. But, in a development which left the striker extremely aggrieved, Ferguson did not consider him in a state to train, as United began preparing for Saturday's game at home to Blackburn Rovers – for which the striker was dropped.
Rooney does not believe he allowed his evening with team-mates Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson, plus partners, to get out of hand – some or all of that group moved on from Southport's Warehouse restaurant, in which Liverpool's Steven Gerrard has a part ownership, to another venue in the town.
Ferguson suggested after omitting Rooney from United's 3-2 defeat to Blackburn that the striker had not "trained well" last week and had been suffering "little strains here and there", but it is now clear he and the players who had joined him were all heavily fined. Rooney's sense of injustice is compounded by his belief that he, Evans and Gibson incurred the manager's wrath only because their discussion about how much they had enjoyed the evening happened to be overheard on Tuesday morning. Word reached Ferguson, who was 70 on Saturday, and the manager called Rooney into his office to voice his displeasure. There is no dispute that some alcohol was consumed, nearly five days before the Blackburn fixture. The three players were ordered to attend extra training on Wednesday – their day off – and Rooney was told on Friday night he would be dropped for the Rovers fixture.
Ferguson's firm line, over an evening which Rooney would probably want no public allusion to if he had not conducted himself acceptably, is bound to raise new questions about the relationship of the two men, 15 months after Rooney publicly challenged the club, before securing a new five-year contract. United insist the disciplinary action is not out of the ordinary and occurs on a regular basis at United, as at all clubs, and player and manager have now put the issue behind them.
Saturday's 3-2 defeat only emphasised Rooney's importance to United's ambitions after Ferguson, in an interview with the club's television channel, stressed his desire to win a third European Cup before retiring. His statement that he believed he has another three years in the job appears to have set a deadline.
United had fashioned wins over Wolves, Queen's Park Rangers, Fulham and Wigan that were so emphatic and timely that the sick-or-injured list – currently numbering 14 – seemed not to threaten their recovery from Champions League elimination as much as anticipated. Yet, faced with a heavy pitch, to which Blackburn adapted more readily on Saturday, Ferguson's patchwork line-up, with unfamiliar combinations in the centre of defence and midfield, was exposed.
Their response to going two goals behind was familiarly combative – Dimitar Berbatov, in particular, worked impressively hard as well as scoring twice to atone for giving away a 16th-minute penalty – but, particularly at 2-2, needed the extra inventiveness Rooney might have provided.
The credit due to Blackburn should not be understated. Steve Kean's back four contained two 20-year-olds and, in left-back Adam Henley, a boy of 17 whose two Premier League starts so far have been at Anfield and Old Trafford. He and Grant Hanley, who exposed David de Gea's weakness at crosses by heading an 80th-minute winner, were heroic. Their performance was that of a team, unlike so many of Blackburn's rebellious fans, standing squarely behind the beleaguered Kean, as Aiyegbeni Yakubu confirmed after supplementing his first-half penalty by going past both Michael Carrick and Phil Jones to score his second after 51 minutes.
"The players are playing for the manager and playing for the club," Yakubu said. "He believes in us and we as a team always believe. All the players celebrate with the manager when we score."
Scorers: Manchester United Berbatov 52, 62. Blackburn Rovers Yakubu pen 16, 51, Hanley 80.
Substitutes: Man U Anderson 6 (Hernandez, h-t), Keane (Rafael, 85). Bl'bn Morris 6 (Rochina, 55), Goodwillie (Formica, 85), Slew (Yakubu, 89). Booked: Man U Nani, Carrick. Bl'bn Lowe, Petrovic. Man of match Hanley. Match rating 7/10. Possession: Man United 58% Blackburn 42%.
Attempts on target: Man United 13 Blackburn 5.
Referee M Dean (Wirral). Attendance 75,146.