Wayne Rooney dilemma is a product of striker's own insolence
You've made your bed, now you have to lie in it. What goes around comes around. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. You reap what you sow. However you want to phrase it, Wayne Rooney -- "angry and confused" about his position at Manchester United -- has brought all of this on himself.
Some commentators have suggested that this sorry saga is Sir Alex Ferguson's mess, dating its beginnings to the last weeks of Ferguson's reign as United manager, when he said that Rooney, left out of the side for that crucial Champions League match against Real Madrid, had requested a transfer. But Ferguson's was the latest move in a drawn-out game of chess that started when Rooney's threat of a move to Manchester City -- chucking insults United's way while he was at it -- resulted in a hugely lucrative new five-year contract.
Rooney's announcement late in 2010 that he wanted to leave United was not quite out of the blue: he and Ferguson had been bickering about an ankle injury. It was a bold and sudden escalation, however. "I was dumbfounded," said Ferguson, prompting Rooney to release a statement explaining that he had met several times with the club about a new contract, had sought assurances "about the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world", and had not found them forthcoming. UNITED CAN'T MATCH MY AMBITIONS, screamed the headlines. City said they were monitoring the situation; a mob of angry United fans gathered outside Rooney's house.
This was all mid-week. On the Friday Rooney signed a new contract, having apparently very quickly been persuaded that United would continue to compete at the very top. "My position was always from a concern over the future," he said. "In the last couple of days, I've talked to the manager and the owners... I'm signing a new deal in the absolute belief that the management, coaching staff, board and owners are totally committed to making sure United maintains its proud winning history."
They had also doubled his wages. Ferguson has rarely looked the way he did as he talked about restoring the club's relationship with Rooney: like a duped pensioner, excitedly explaining how this nice chap had offered to check the roof and found it in a terrible state, but had offered to fix it for only the sum of his entire life savings.
Perhaps Ferguson was simply being pragmatic: Rooney had a magnificent 2009-10 season, scoring 34 goals and being named PFA Player of the Year. For all his fierce reputation, Ferguson has accommodated players in the past, if and when he feels that their on-the-pitch contribution makes it worthwhile. That fine balance must be sustained, though. If Ferguson swallowed Rooney's insistence that it was the club, and not his pocket, that mattered, then it is Rooney himself who has choked on it.
After Manchester City won the title from United on goal difference in 2011-12, Ferguson delivered on the assurances given to Rooney. Robin van Persie, owner of the Premier League's Golden Boot and then the current PFA Player of the Year, arrived from Arsenal. The sort of world-class player that Rooney so wanted for United; all $36.6 million of him. Van Persie scored four goals in his first three appearances for United, setting the tone for another excellent injury-free season. His goals, Ferguson said, were what restored the Premier League trophy to Old Trafford.
Less trumpeted has been the signing of Shinji Kagawa, but it is no less important. When he has played, Kagawa has been shifted over to the left much of the time, but when given the opportunity he has shown what he can do in the No. 10 role to which Rooney has been demoted by Van Persie. Rooney understandably prefers not to have to reinvent himself as a central midfielder; United understandably sees it has the personnel to absorb his absence in a way that they could not in 2010. If United succeeds in signing Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona (a $39.65 million bid is currently on the table), that sense will become even stronger.
Having this week rejected a $30.5 million bid from Chelsea, United maintains, however, that it wants to hold on to the player. The comments from the manager David Moyes that apparently so angered and confused Rooney -- "If for any reason we had an injury to Robin, we are going to need him" -- have reached the public eye as if through thick glass.
"I think he's got a major role to play," Moyes actually said. "I think Wayne can play up top, he can play dropped in. Overall my thought on Wayne is: he'll be key. If for any reason we had an injury to Robin, we are going to need him. I want to play the two of them, I want to be able to use Danny Welbeck, Chicharito as well."
Seen in full, Moyes' remarks might simply be sloppily worded -- if he means that Rooney's flexibility is going to be useful, and that if Van Persie is injured they will absolutely depend for their lives on Rooney, then he could have put it better. But Moyes is savvy enough to know that headline-hungry news organizations cherry-pick quotes. Is Rooney angry and confused because he thinks he's been unceremoniously shunted down the pecking order at United, or because he recognizes in his new manager's 'clumsy' statement the subtle slide of a pawn across the chessboard?
Is Rooney even angry and confused, for that matter? Or is he simply trapped in a game of his own creation, each side briefing against the other, their own purposes more or less cleverly concealed, as they look to force the other's hand?