United in their 'shock and disappointment' – the backlash begins
'Little Scouse lad' comes under fire from club legend as bids for Benzema and Villa prove Ferguson's willingness to spend
It was left to Lou Macari to extemporise on how it would have felt to be a Manchester United player an hour or so before kick-off on Wednesday night, as the football world was still digesting Wayne Rooney's written declaration that his team-mates are, frankly, not good enough.
"I have never known a player have the cheek to do what he has done," Macari said. "Had he been playing in the Seventies or Eighties, the players in the dressing room... well, they would have left him in no doubt and would have asked him just what he was playing at. They think they are good enough to win trophies. Does he not think that? It's a slight on his fellow professionals."
And of the notion of Rooney knocking on chief executive David Gill's door to tell him he doubted the "continued ability of the club to attract the best players in the world", as Rooney put it, Macari said: "I know some of the players who have come and gone: better players than Wayne Rooney. I have never known any of them to have the cheek to ask the people who run the best football club in the world what they are doing. I can't imagine this little Scouse lad going to David Gill or the manager and asking what is going on."
Such was the tenor of the backlash yesterday against Rooney's written explanation of his desire to leave, which has proved to be an unmitigated disaster, artful though it was in drawing attention away from money – to many fans the apparent reason for his intended departure – and onto United's decision (or "inability", as Rooney sees it) not to spend big.
The expectation had been that the United players would troop through Wednesday night's mixed zone, heads down, dodging the controversy, and if Rooney had not published his thoughts then maybe that's how it would have been. But one by one the players stopped, revealing in so doing that Ferguson's dressing room will never be the same again for as long as Rooney graces its four walls.
Patrice Evra's suggestion that Rooney should not play for United again was the most brutal assessment. But Darren Fletcher, who has also known the distraction of another club's attentions but prospered after declining the move to Everton two summers ago which might have given him more immediate football – seemed betrayed, too. "I think everyone is disappointed because we love Wayne as a team-mate and have so much respect for the manager," he said. "We have not known about [any of] this so it is just as much a shock to us as it is to everyone else."
The players were speaking at the end of one of the most extraordinary evenings Old Trafford had known. It is not such a "shock" to some of Rooney's confidantes as it was to Fletcher that the 24-year-old has harboured doubts about United's spending and that he has been mesmerised by Yaya Touré's extraordinary salary. (City sources have clarified that the figure is a little short of £200,000 a week, including all bonuses.) But "shock" seems to reflect Ferguson's feelings.
The manager again rebutted Rooney with surprising candour on Wednesday night, detailing how United actually had bid for a marquee player this summer, who proved unwilling to leave for England. That player was David Villa – a home bird where his own Spanish nation is concerned – whose departure from Valencia to Barcelona means that United have been beaten to the punch on transfers by a big Spanish side two summers running. Ferguson also sanctioned a £35m bid that matched Real Madrid's for Karim Benzema of Lyons the previous year that was accepted, only for the deal to fail because of the player's £200,000 wage demands, as The Independent revealed in May.
Benzema last summer; Villa this. The pattern of United's willingness to pay substantial sums for players contradicts the general notion, fuelled by Rooney, that the Glazers will not spend. It is where wages are concerned that United insist on imposing limits: this, in part, was why Carlos Tevez moved across Manchester and why Rooney, for whom £150,000 is not enough, is ready to move on.
In the economics of success, wages do matter. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's book Soccernomics has extrapolated, through a study of the spending of 40 clubs, how hard outlay on transfers explained only 16 per cent of their variation in league position. Spending on salaries explains a massive 92 per cent of variation. It is why Manchester City, likely to overtake Chelsea next year to become the biggest spender on wages, are where they are. The word "wages", of course, dare not speak its name where Rooney is concerned – it would expose a significant reason why City might be such an attraction to him. But pay, rather than transfer market outlay, is at the heart of the issue in every way, with United's resolute determination to maintain a wage structure within their business plan looking increasingly brave.
Of course, no one takes issue with pay structures when you are winning. But United are neither champions nor a side with the look of champions-elect and the manager is trying to hold it together again. His riposte to Rooney on Wednesday night eloquently touched upon his ability to find, rather than buy, talent. "People don't identify talent; they're very poor at it. I've identified it all my life." But as the most intuitive words of Rooney's statement declared, Ferguson cannot "go on for ever". This is one four-year development cycle that Ferguson might not be around to see through. The performance of his youthful side against Bursaspor did not create the sense that the latest group of players is anywhere near ready.
Such are Rooney's most credible grounds for doubt about the future, though the way he has articulated those doubts had few such subtleties and leave him with equally few friends around Old Trafford. Fletcher suggested that he holds out hopes of talking Rooney out of his wanderlust. "I think I will try to change his mind but he is his own man, a determined person. I don't know if his mind is 100 per cent made up or not," the midfielder said. If Rooney's resolve was a source of doubt before the events of Wednesday night, it is now hard to see him heading anywhere but out of the Old Trafford gates.
Viewpoints: Managers' reaction to Rooney saga
Players have opinions. If they want to leave, good luck. Manchester United will more than survive.
It shows you how fragile the position of any club is, considering the contracts of players.
He has got years ahead of him. It is not my business but Sir Alex knows the best way to handle it.
The times when players become attached to the football club and play for the shirt are long gone.
The power is all with the players and that is sad. It is very difficult for any club, even United.
The game is wrong. The people in charge are wrong. They are so wrong it is frightening.
Rooney and United are a tremendous fit. You don't want the best players leaving the League.
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