Rooney's jokes highlight United weakness

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson is understood to be harbouring concerns about Manchester United's over-reliance on Wayne Rooney, with his feeling that his side are a shadow of themselves without him, making the prospect of signing a new striker this summer more likely.

Rooney's witty and accomplished acceptance of the Football Writers' Association player of the year award on Thursday night included his disclosure that his manager had asked him to get on the end of more balls played into the box. "I said 'OK', so you want me to get on the end of my own crosses," Rooney said. He – and his manager, sitting just over the 24-year-old's left shoulder – both grinned. But it is actually a serious point because Rooney has been relied on by United to provide and finish too often this season.

"If you look at the team in 1999 that won the Treble we had four forwards, all capable of scoring goals," Rooney said recently. "If we can get one more top forward in it would give us the right balance."

Rooney's acceptance speech took the form of a question-and-answer session, in which he provided the most insight yet into how he feels Cristiano Ronaldo's departure last summer has helped him. "It's been different," he said. "Ronaldo scored all those goals but when you are a centre forward in the box it's hard to play with. When he does put it [the ball] in you are not running any more."

Rooney declared two weeks ago that Antonio Valencia is the player with whom he most likes to operate and he agreed on Thursday that he is receiving better service this year than last.

His unfettered energy for the game is infectious to all who observe it, his discussion also touching on his propensity for watching his brothers, cousins and friends play Sunday League football in Liverpool – "the last game I went to watch there were 30 police cars there. If it wasn't for Manchester United I would be there" – and his manager's claims that Rooney would play in goal if he let him. "I'm not bad. I'm certainly better than a few I've seen this season."

Ferguson smiled at that one too, though the 10-minute session hosted by Sky's Jeff Stelling, drifted into realms which the United manager did not take kindly to and by the end he had taken his spectacles off and was leaning forward, hissing "Jeff, Jeff, that's enough" as Rooney provided his responses.

Ferguson is understood to have been particularly disgruntled by what he felt was "headline seeking" on Sky's part when Rooney was asked about Paul Scholes' decision not to come out of international retirement and play for England at the World Cup.

United's task is to find a forward who can supplement Rooney and enable him to maintain the central role he told Ferguson last summer he would flourish in. But before that, South Africa. Rooney insisted there need not be fears about his groin injury after he effectively substituted himself against Stoke last weekend. "The manager substituted me as well," he added, not casting a glance at his manager during another wry joke at his expense.

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