One wondered just how much Manchester United would take before a line was finally drawn. Briefing and counter-briefing a summer long, the club holding Wayne Rooney to the lucrative five-year contract signed the last time the player wanted out; the striker’s people maneuvering the media game to only marginally credible effect.
So it comes to something when United’s manager and executive vice chairman stepped into the debate within hours of each other over the weekend. These were significant developments too, with United making the club’s position clear: Rooney will not leave on his terms and if necessary the Reds will allow the player’s contract to run down.
Behind the scenes Rooney’s people seemingly continue to press for a move away. Indeed, the positions of both parties has been greatly clarified since David Moyes officially took up residency at Old Trafford on 1 July. It is now clear that United has little intention of being manipulated by the player for a second time in three years – at least not while the player has so much to prove.
Rooney, by contrast, has a dwindling will to remain in Manchester – at least not until there’s a new contract to negotiate.
So there was little surprise when United’s new chief Edward Woodward dismissed the notion that a deal is there to be struck. After all, United holds the cards this time around; the aces being the player’s dire recent form and Robin van Persie’s excellence. No longer United’s star turn, Rooney is in a far weaker position than during his ‘October Revolution’ in 2010.
“I am not sitting down with any player on an extension and there is no trigger date in the diary,” 40-year-old Woodward told Sky Sports.
“No contract renewals are being discussed. Would we be afraid to run a contract down? Of course not. I’m not surprised clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal want Wayne but he’s not for sale and we won’t be selling him.”
Moyes got in on the act, implicitly relegating Rooney to the position of van Persie’s understudy – further weakening the Englishman’s hand. Not, of course, that events on the field hadn’t conspired to make this so in any case.
And with United’s senior management seemingly in unison Rooney’s options have narrowed – potentially for 12 months – a prospect that may be unpalatable to the 27-year-old given the player’s awe-inspiring sulk towards the back-end of last season.
“Overall my thought on Wayne is, if for any reason we had an injury to Robin van Persie, we’ll need him,” said Moyes as United’s left Thailand for the second leg of the club’s summer tour in Australia.
“This is a chance for me to get Wayne right back to where he was. I want to be able to play the two of them, I want to use Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández as well. Maybe in a year’s time we might have to look at something else.”
It that there is an essential truth, with the Dutchman certain to start as United’s principle forward in the coming season, leaving Rooney to compete with Shinji Kagawa for a place in van Persie’s shadow or wait for an unlikely injury.
Moyes’ determination to stamp his mark on the club has also become a factor, with the former Evertonian seemingly unwilling to let his charge dictate terms. It is surely a smart move lest the new manager appear weak within months of taking the job.
Nor can Rooney now bank on support from the terraces in what is likely to become a more aggressive PR game as the saga reaches it’s denouement. After all, while Rooney’s entourage has widely briefed the media that no formal transfer request has ever been submitted, the club called the bluff by seemingly daring the player to do so if he wants a move away.
“Manchester United isn’t about Wayne, Manchester United is about the team, the club,” said the new manager. “I won’t allow Wayne Rooney to become more important than the club and the team because that’s the heart of it.”
Injury complimented Rooney’s insult last Friday, with the player heading home ahead of United’s tour match in Bangkok – a hamstring strain that is likely to keep the player out for three weeks.
Moyes called the problem minor, but the player’s history suggests that Rooney will be significantly behind his colleagues’ fitness levels come the big kick off on 17 August.
It proffers Hernández, Welbeck and Kagawa the opportunity to forge a partnership with van Persie in the Scouser’s absence – a withdrawal that may become permanent should Chelsea, Arsenal or Paris Saint Germain firm up tentative interest in the player.
The Dutchman arrives in Sydney for a week’s intensive training ahead of United’s fixture with the A-League All Stars next weekend. Saturday’s shock 1-0 defeat to Singha All Stars leaves the squad seeking to inject a more positive tone in Moyes’ second United game as manager.
van Persie’s arrival will certainly provide a lift – and another sign that United has moved on since Rooney questioned the club’s “ambition” in 2010.
Monday’s £25 million bid for Cesc Fabregas could offer Moyes another option in both midfield – where Sir Alex Ferguson increasingly used Rooney last season – and as van Persie’s foil. Fabregas was one of only 13 players in Europe’s top five leagues to finish last season with both 10 goals and 10 assists.
In fact the Spaniard scored and assisted more league goals than Anderson, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck combined last season, although Fabregas’ arrival at Old Trafford is surely unlikely.
Rooney, of course, was another in that exclusive club. It is the Englishman’s essential dichotomy – he is one of the continent’s most productive players even when in the doldrums of abysmal form.
Whether Moyes can bring the player’s performances around is a fascinating question – but one that’ll only be tested if Rooney blinks first in the realpoltik of the transfer market.