At the World Cup finals this summer, in the long weeks in England's training camp outside Rustenburg, Wayne Rooney was given to wondering aloud whether his future was best served with Manchester United who had made him an offer of a new contract that had not come close to his expectations.
Among the despondency and the long unfilled hours around England's headquarters in the little town of Phokeng in the North West province, Rooney's disaffection with his club was not a secret. United's offer of a contract worth around £150,000-a-week was dwarfed by the huge salaries being paid to Manchester City's new signings funded by their owner Sheikh Mansour.
Rooney's other concern was whether United had the means to replace the likes of Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, especially with the club paying £40m a year in interest on the Glazer family's enormous debt. As word got around about Rooney's unhappiness it became clear that his frustration at United had a few elements to it. But like all big decisions that affect the modern footballer, Rooney's choice not to sign his new deal came down to one factor above all: money.
The common perception of Rooney is that he is thick and that away from the pitch he is ripe for exploitation by the men in suits who understand the balance sheet better than he does. But Rooney is not thick. He has an instinctive understanding of how much he is worth and he has the single-mindedness and strength of character to force the issue in order to get it.
There is intense interest among footballers in the wages of their peers. It is hard to underestimate the effect that the extraordinary salary City agreed with Yaya Touré, the Ivorian midfielder signed from Barcelona in the summer, has had on the expectations of the best players in the game. It raised the bar dramatically and it was paid to a player whom no one would consider as among the most sought-after players in the world.
Touré's deal was devised to give him a salary of around £4.1m after tax. That means he earns around £185,000-a-week for now but that will rise to £221,000-a-week when the government raises the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent in April. It is a terrifying prospect for football club chairmen that players will soon be asking them to make up the shortfall when the Exchequer takes its extra 10 per cent.
Just as John Terry had his head turned in the summer of last year by the wages that City are capable of paying, so it has been impossible for Rooney to ignore. There is no compunction among footballers at maximising their salary and City are currently the biggest show in town. The prevailing mood among this very fortunate generation of young men is that as the single most valuable commodity in the game they owe it to themselves to make as much as they can.
Rooney has options. His contract is up in June 2012 when he could walk away for free. The Fifa "Webster ruling" would permit him to buy out the last year of his contract for little more the equivalent of a year's salary, £5m. Rooney will not have to listen to the phone-ins over the next few days to know the rage and disbelief that will be expressed at his refusal to sign a new contract. He will already have realised what he is about to unleash. But he has spent most of his young life in the eye of one storm or another.
So what next? Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, the club's chief executive, have negotiated countless acquisitions and sales of famous footballers but they have never faced a situation like this. Comparisons with David Beckham are misleading. Beckham signed a new contract in 2002, the summer before he was sold to Real Madrid, which gave United five years' protection against him leaving for free. Rooney will be a free agent in just 20 months' time.
Rooney is represented in negotiations with the club by his long-serving agent Paul Stretford who has a lifetime of experience in the brutal world of deal-making in football. In the 1990s, Stretford represented a series of high-profile English footballers including Stan Collymore and Andy Cole. However, as Rooney has developed into the most famous player in the country, Stretford has concentrated all his energies on his stellar client.
In 2004, Stretford alleged he was blackmailed by Rooney's former agents in a court case that eventually collapsed on the basis of his evidence. He was banned by the Football Association and then successfully appealed. Most recently he defeated a £4.5m claim against him and his client from the talent agency that he founded, sold and eventually left in 2008 – taking with him Rooney and his wife Coleen.
Rooney's life has never been straightforward and nor has the life of the man who negotiates his contracts, his commercial deals, oversees his legal team and goes to battle on his behalf with newspapers. But what that tells us is that both Rooney and Stretford are tough characters and the prospect of public disapproval or a struggle with Ferguson and Gill will not deter the two men if the rewards are big enough.
If Rooney is sold, as United are threatening if he does not sign his contract, then it will be he who chooses where he goes. If he leaves for free then the rewards will be phenomenal – whether it is City or elsewhere. And if he stays, which seems increasingly unlikely, then it will only be on his own terms. He is in the ideal position and there will be many footballers of more modest talent looking at Rooney's example and wondering if they should do the same.
The prize is enormous. Rooney could potentially become the Premier League's first £250,000-a-week footballer, the £1m-a-month man. Over the next five years that will take Rooney, who turns 25 on Sunday, to the age of 30 he could potentially earn £60m. For a player and an agent who have learned the hard way that fortunes in football can change in an instant it is too good a possibility to ignore.
But where would he go? Rooney's most likely options should he leave united
Manchester City 9-2
It would make City's signing of the former Manchester United striker Carlos Tevez last year – who was bought from a third party who had previously loaned him to United – look tame in comparison. The key problem for City signing Rooney would be the effect his contract would have on their attempts to meet the forthcoming Uefa financial fair play rules. But if Rooney is determined to leave then City will generate the most cash for the player. If it is a choice between him joining City for £45m or leaving for nothing in June 2012 then there is no doubt which option the Glazers will take.
Real Madrid 6-1
Jorge Valdano, the club's technical director, said yesterday that with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria in the team, "who do we take out if Rooney comes?" Of course, when Madrid say they do not want a player it usually means they do. Those who say that they cannot see Rooney playing abroad are underestimating his determination. Jose Mourinho, who was undone at Chelsea by United's title-winning combination of Rooney and Ronaldo in 2007, was more sceptical. "I don't think he will [leave]," he said yesterday. "The big man [Ferguson] will persuade him to stay."
Debts of £370m have taken the edge off the spending power of the most attractive team in the world. No Englishman has played in any of the great Barcelona teams of the last seven years but Rooney would fit in. Lower rates of income tax in Europe would increase Barcelona's ability to meet Rooney's wage demands.
There was advice for Rooney yesterday from his former team-mate Roy Keane. "I would tell him to make sure he looks after No 1," Keane said. "Players are pieces of meat – that's how I look at it. When your time's up, your time's up."
They refused to pay John Terry the wages that he would have been able to command at City in the summer of last year so it would not be easy to justify doing the same for Rooney if he is after £200,000 a week. But this is the kind of deal that might just appeal to Roman Abramovich.
"You better ask Roman Abramovich directly," Carlo Ancelotti said yesterday. "I can't give an answer about this because it's not a good moment to say. Rooney is a United player, maybe he has some problems at the moment. Big teams want to keep top players like Rooney."