United deny plans to sell Rooney but pay the price for distractions

Manchester United 2 West Bromwich Albion 2
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Seven years ago this week, the Everton manager, David Moyes, expressed his concerns in this newspaper about the outside influences affecting his young protégé, Wayne Rooney, who planned a lavish 18th birthday party at Aintree racecourse.

The high-profile bash attracted pop stars such as Blue and Atomic Kitten as the youngster from Croxteth began to embrace the celebrity lifestyle under the guidance of his new superagent, Paul Stretford, and his Pro-Pro-Active group. The conflict between the player and the commercial brand caused a strain between Rooney and Moyes that never healed and he was sold to Manchester United the next summer.

As the troubled England striker approaches his 25th birthday on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson and United's increasingly anxious supporters may be harbouring similar concerns. Rooney, still looking for his first goal in open play for his club since March, was left on the bench until the 71st minute against West Bromwich on Saturday, paying the price for his poor form and, doubtless, for publicly contradicting his manager last week over his fitness.

His problems off the field have been well documented but never before has his football suffered this badly and the body language when he entered the fray in a double substitution with Paul Scholes on Saturday gave off worrying signals. The fact that Albion had recovered at 2-2 by the 55th minute presented Rooney with the perfect stage to state his case. After all, United had also struggled without him at Fulham, Everton and Sunderland and they could ill afford more dropped points.

Yet Rooney was peripheral at best, losing possession with his first touch and showing none of the hunger that usually characterises his game.

Rooney gave up the alibi for his distressing form last week when he denied Ferguson's assertion he was still suffering the after-effects of the ankle he damaged against Bayern Munich last season. If it is not a fitness issue, then the spotlight must fall again on the distractions off the field.

United yesterday described as "nonsense" newspaper claims that Rooney, who has 18 months left on his contract, could be sold as early as January and the former club captain Steve Bruce added that Ferguson would get the player back on track. Yet the fact that Rooney's future is being discussed, and that United feel obliged to comment, says something and Ferguson's patience with even his highest-profile players has its limits, as David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane, among others, would testify.

It had all started so well for United on Saturday with Javier Hernandez, Rooney's replacement, scoring his first Premier League goal after Scott Carson had spilt Nani's free-kick in the fifth minute. Chris Brunt missed a chance to level and United doubled their advantage when Nani and Dimitar Berbatov linked for the Portuguese to beat Carson with his left foot.

Berbatov was having one of his off days but United should still have put the game beyond Albion – and might have done had Nemanja Vidic's header not hit the post after the break.

Albion, winners at the Emirates in their previous away game, then seized the initiative with two goals inside six minutes. First, Patrice Evra deflected Brunt's free-kick into his own net and then Edwin van der Sar outdid Carson in the comedy stakes by dropping Brunt's hooked cross for the Cameroon midfielder Somen Tchoyi to tap into an empty net. Ferguson described it as a "primary school" error from Van der Sar, but that's being harsh to the nation's under-11s.

"There's nothing you can do about it, because it was just one of those inexplicable errors," Ferguson said. "From a performance in the first half that was really outstanding, the criticism is that we didn't finish them off."

By the end it was United who were hanging on as West Bromwich attacked with a fluency and invention that recalled their last victory at Old Trafford, a 5-3 rout in 1978 when Ron Atkinson was the visiting manager and Bryan Robson ran their midfield. "I was about eight then,"the current manager Roberto Di Matteo said, "but I know they were legends." When told Atkinson and Robson later moved to Old Trafford, he smiled as if expecting the next question. "Football changes so much you can't make long-term plans."

Something that Rooney would be advised to think about.

Match facts

Possession Man United 51% West Brom 49%. Shots on target Man United 9 West Brom 2. Referee M Jones (Chester). Att 75,272. Man of the match Brunt. Match rating 8/10.