Monday October 18th, 2010

It's not hard to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong. On March 30, Wayne Rooney put Manchester United ahead in the second minute of a Champions League quarterfinal match at Bayern Munich, a controlled, eminently accomplished finish from a Nani cross. It was exactly what everybody had come to expect from a player who had already scored 33 goals for his club that season and nine more for England.

By the end of the game, though, Bayern had scored twice, and Rooney was hobbling with an ankle injury. Since then, he has started 20 games for club and country -- plus 19 minutes from the bench on Saturday -- and scored just twice: a penalty against West Ham and a close-range finish for England against Switzerland.

Forward play is about more than just goals, of course, but that measure provides a useful indication of how rapidly his form has dipped. The assessment of fans and pundits tends to oscillate far too radically between brilliant and rubbish, but here the concerns are well-founded. Against Montenegro for England on Tuesday, and against West Brom for United on Saturday, he was staggeringly ineffective, his movement labored, his touch heavy. England manager Fabio Capello, in seeking positives with which to defend him, ended up praising the way he'd tracked back to halt a Montenegro counterattack with a cynical hack that brought a yellow card.

Last season, Rooney was voted player of the year by both the players' and football writers' associations. The decline has been so rapid that when a tabloid reported on Sunday that he would leave Manchester United in January, it seemed entirely plausible. That's not to say that he definitely will go, but with his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson clearly strained and United in less-than-robust financial health, it's fair to say that negotiations over a new contract are reaching a critical point.

After sustaining the ankle injury in Munich, Rooney returned to face Bayern in the second leg the following week. He insisted he was fit and was nursed through until the end of the season, but he hasn't been the same since. Perhaps the injury in part explains why he was so poor at the World Cup, but there were other issues.

In the World Cup qualifiers, Rooney played as a second striker, behind Emile Heskey. His role at United was not dissimilar, operating first off Carlos Tevez to create room for Cristiano Ronaldo, and then as a foil for Dimitar Berbatov. As Berbatov's form waned, though, and he was dropped, Rooney became an out-and-out striker, and his goal scoring flourished. He seemed to find readjusting to the deeper role difficult, and that was part of the reason England became locked in a static 4-4-2. The pressure mounted; Rooney, as the designated Messiah, took most of it upon himself, and as the criticism became harsher, his confidence waned.

Ferguson, apparently, phoned Rooney at the World Cup to try to offer support. After the revelations about Rooney's private life -- the impact of which on his form is very difficult to gauge -- Ferguson has tried to withdraw him from the firing line. He left him out at Everton, where as a former player he was assured a hostile reception regardless of external concerns, and rested him for the games at Valencia and Sunderland, citing the ankle injury.

He then sent him off to play for England, presumably reasoning that as his only two decent performances this season have come for his country, that was where he felt most comfortable, and so that was the best way for Rooney to play himself into form. So for Rooney then to tell journalists that his ankle is fine, and that he doesn't know why Ferguson has been leaving him out, seems a deliberate rebuke of his manager. Very few players take on Ferguson and remain at United for a significant period of time, as Roy Keane, David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy have all discovered.

Complicating the matter is the issue of Rooney's contract, which will expire in the summer of 2012. This isn't pressing just yet, but it soon will be; because a player is available on a free transfer if his contract expires, his value falls sharply over the final 18 months of its term, and he is allowed to sign a pre-contract with another club from six months before his existing contract expires. Rooney is demanding about $250,000 a week, which is comparable to the highest-paid players in the Premier League.

He is probably worth it -- at least if his form does return -- but he could hardly be negotiating at a worse time. It is not just that the global financial crisis and the coming of UEFA's rules on financial fair play, which will insist teams present a balanced budget, have provoked a general mood of retrenchment among clubs in Europe; it is that United has particular financial concerns of its own. Results for the last financial year show United losing $133 million despite earnings of $454 million, much of it gone on repaying interest on the loans taken out in the course of the Glazer family's leveraged buyout.

Faced with that reality, seeing what happened to former Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett when they struggled to repay loans to Royal Bank of Scotland and were forced to appoint a chairman with the power to sell the club from underneath them, United may be persuaded that it is better to take, say, $95 million for Rooney in January, pay off part of the debt and save a hefty salary, rather than hang on to a player who, at the moment, is doing little to justify the money.

Fans who have already seen Ronaldo and Tevez leave without being adequately replaced -- although it could be argued that Berbatov was a preemptive replacement -- would react with fury, and given how reliant United became on Rooney last season, it would be an almighty gamble to sell him. Besides, it's not clear which club would have the resources to sign him: Barcelona is struggling under its debts, and although Real Madrid does somehow seem to have the money to contemplate signing a center forward, Jose Mourinho has made clear he wants a strong, back-to-goal striker in the Didier Drogba mold.

Even the fact a move is being discussed, though, suggests how far Rooney has fallen and indicates how wrong things have gone for Manchester United this season. United's performances have been been lackluster, it's squandered leads, and there is a general feeling of unease about the club. The fall of Ferguson's empire has been predicted many times before, but with finances straightened, he really needs Rooney fit and focused soon. United's talisman, and its season, are slipping away.

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