They booed the home team off the pitch at the end of Saturday’s match at Old Trafford between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion. For the fifth time in eight league matches this season, United had failed to win a league match and, although they remain unbeaten in the Premier League table and stay in the Champions League places for the time being, for Manchester United supporters that have been plumpened with almost two decades of unbroken success, this is what counts for underachievement. More troubling for supporters of the club, however, will be the apparent breakdown in the relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and another of his employers’ most prized assets; Wayne Rooney.
That Rooney has been out of sorts since returning from the injury that he sustained in the Champions League against Bayern Munich last season is not in doubt. Through the remainder of last season, the World Cup and the first two months of this season, he has come to resemble something approaching a caricature of himself. Whilst the argument over whether players should be booed is best left for another time, if there was a time to boo Rooney, it was probably most justifiably on Saturday afternoon. He seemed incapable of even the bare basics against West Bromwich Albion – it was the sort of sloppy, unprofessional performance that one would expect from… a player that doesn’t care any more.
Rooney’s – and, by proxy, Manchester United’s – situation is complicated by the player’s contractual obligations and entitlements. His contract with Manchester United expires in June of 2012, but he is entitled to sign a pre-contract with another club six months prior to this. Unless a new contract is agreed in the next few months or so, therefore, his market value – and this is not taking into account his form as a player – will be likely to drop. If Wayne Rooney has reached the point of no return with Manchester United it might make financial sense for the club to sell him while his value is still (relatively) high, and Manchester United’s profit/loss sheets can hardly afford to keep a sulky player on their books and let him depreciate in value and then leave for nothing.
The psychological effect of the departure of Wayne Rooney from Old Trafford is likely to be damaging for the club itself. Manchester United have had players – David Beckham, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo – that have wanted away from the club, but the impression has always been that it was the club that dictated their eventual departure. In this case, it seems to be Rooney (and, in turn, his agent, Paul Stretford) that seems to be dictating the terms of this particular pas de deux. If he feels able to hold a gun to the head of the club then he may be able to get himself a new contract, but the most persistent story currently circulating is that this is not the case, rather that Rooney is set on leaving Old Trafford. If he were to go to Manchester City, well… quite what that would say about the shift in the power balance between the two clubs in the city of Manchester probably doesn’t bear thinking about for Manchester United supporters.
The flip-side to this, of course, is the question of how long Wayne Rooney can play as badly as he has for the last few months and continue to get away with it. For all that he might want to get away from Old Trafford, the whispered question that have been watching him play over the last few months is of whether it is possible that his moment might, a week and half shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, have already passed. It may seem fanciful to pass such a comment, but it has been six months now and we know that he still smokes, in spite of what he must surely know about the fitness levels required to stay at the top of the Premier League. If he is looking to put himself in the shop window, his performance from the bench against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend was about the worst way to do it. As things stand, he has, it could certainly be argued, moved from being a striker that most clubs in Europe would covet to being, for what his wage demands would undoubtedly be, a risky signing.
Manchester United supporters may hope for the money from the sale of Rooney to be spent on replacements, but this didn’t happen to the extent that they might have hoped and it is as unlikely to happen in the event that Rooney were to be sold – and we don’t even know how much, with all of this speculation having already started and the story now being common knowledge, he would sell for. At this stage, we all know the damage that the continuing ownership of the Glazer family is having upon Manchester United and the reaction of Manchester United supporters to such a sale will be certainly be interesting to watch from the outside. The green and gold campaign has flagged over the last few months to such an extent that it would not be unreasonable to say that it has failed. Might it, however, pick up momentum again with such a visible reminder that servicing a black hole of debt takes a higher priority than investing in the team at the moment? No matter what spin David Gill tries to put upon it, losing Wayne Rooney is unlikely to be able to be spun successfully by the club.
There has been little said over the last few days to suggest that the talk surrounding Wayne Rooney and Manchester United is baseless gossip. As such, the only thing that both sides in this particular tug of war can hope for is the best deal for themselves, and the best interests of the supporters concerned will always come a distant third place to those. It is a story from which neither side is likely to emerge with much credit, and to that extent, it is fully in keeping with modern Premier League football – venal, out of any rational control and unlikely to resolve itself with out some very public mud-slinging. We have said on this site before that the real protest started long ago at FC United of Manchester. Manchester United supporters seeking refuge from this insanity remain best advised to start afresh there.