Wayne Rooney returns to Carrington today after a week’s training and ‘refocusing’ in the United States with no guarantee that the 25-year-old striker will play against Wigan Athletic next weekend. Nor, it seems, is there any assurance that Rooney will remain at United beyond next summer despite the lavish new five-year contract signed just weeks ago.
With the ink on Rooney’s contract barely dry it is perhaps odd to begin a countdown on the player’s eventual exit but little in this sorry saga handcuffs the striker to United. If anything United supporters are more aware than ever that Rooney is tied to the club by economics alone.
Indeed, Rooney’s contract is perhaps a short-term marriage of convenience. After all, United is desperately short of creativity and Rooney short of form, confidence and minutes in recent months.
Perhaps more importantly for United’s management the asset will not be lost at less than its true value. Doubling Rooney’s salary might have cost the club an additional £5 million a season in wages but it is a small price to pay both to boost United’s short-term success and protect the club’s financial interests. After all, United faced the very real prospect of accepting a knock-down price on its star player had Rooney entered the final year of his old deal.
On the flip side, United also needs Rooney to recreate the form of last winter, when at times the striker was – to coin a cliché – unplayable. That has not been the case since March, of course.
In the meantime, United remains unbeaten in 26 matches but a series of unconvincing performances, especially but not limited to those fixtures on the road, have resulted in seven draws this season. The palpable lack of creativity at times is shocking not only because it is not the ‘United way’ but that the problem has been earmarked for more than two years.
It is not aided by Dimitar Berbatov’s two-month long fall from grace. The Bulgarian’s outstanding start to the season has now given way to the humdrum performances that have so-clouded the £30 million striker during his two-year stint in Manchester. Brilliant at times but seemingly not able to carry the side through a difficult spell.
In the immediate term, Rooney is expected to reclaim his place in the United side, if not for Wigan’s visit to Old Trafford, then perhaps the trip to Glasgow next week. United need the former Evertonian to hit the ground running.
“Will Rooney play next weekend? We will have a look at Wayne. He is back in the country. We will have a look at him and then we will build towards next weekend,” said assistant manager Mike Phelan over the weekend.
“He has trained very well. The exercise that we have put in place for him has worked well. Wayne has been doing really well.
“He has been training really hard, working morning and afternoon. Our people out there who are looking after him have been really pleased with his attitude and approach.
“We will see where he is at on Monday but we think he will have improved immensely.”
Yet Phelan is not the man to be convinced, either about Rooney’s form or the player’s true commitment to the cause. Telling then that Ferguson should be so dismissive over Rooney’s chances of playing in England’s friendly with France on Wednesday night.
“He can only be available if he’s fit – and he’s not fit,” said the United manager. This coming before Rooney had even returned to Carrington for fitness assessments this morning.
It’s a common assessment from Ferguson this season and one that has not always been shared by the player. Indeed, the Scot’s refrain has normally been used to take Rooney out of the firing line. When it failed, Ferguson sent the player 5,000 miles away from the prying eyes of the English media.
If Ferguson’s words hint at a lingering tension that is not masked by the smiling photos syndicated – at a cost of £300 each – by the club shortly after Rooney put pen to paper in October then that can be no surprise. The manager is undisputed boss at Old Trafford and few if any players in Ferguson’s 24-year association with United have undermined that fact quite as strongly as Rooney.
That only Cristiano Ronaldo has left the club at a time not of Ferguson’s choosing cannot be underestimated. Even the Portuguese was made to wait three years for a move. Yet, should Rooney not quickly fall back into line his time at Old Trafford will surely be short indeed.
Ferguson’s expert use of the media not only quickly led to the player’s vilification as a mercenary but almost certainly pressured the Rooney into signing.
Reports that some of United’s squad is less than happy with Rooney’s attitude remain. That Ferguson made the player apologise to his team-mates was not only humiliating but necessary. If he didn’t before, the player certainly knows who controls his destiny now.
But Ferguson the pragmatist will also welcome back Rooney into the fold so long as it suits his immediate needs.
“Wayne’s had a good week,” Ferguson told the Manchester Evening News today.
“He’s trained very hard, two days two sessions, three days three sessions, we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve.”
Which was not only increased fitness but a close eye on both Rooney’s behaviour and diet according to reports. And after watching Berbatov and Hernández struggle at Aston Villa over the weekend, Rooney’s week might just get better next Saturday.
United needs him but for how long is still open to question.