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No longer ‘the greatest club in the world’

The Ferguson-Rooney spat is more than a PR war - it’s a sign that Manchester United’s empire is crumbling.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Wayne Rooney is no oil painting. Not like David Beckham. But while he isn’t the most photogenic footballer, the media obsession with Rooney is just as all-consuming as it was with Becks.

His poor form, his penchant for prostitutes, his marital problems, his fractured relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. Front page, back page, gossip columns – Rooney and his troubles dominate them all. Even the comprehensive spending review had to share frontpage billing with Rooney in The Times this week.

Most dramatic of all was the bombshell – and I don’t use that phrase lightly – of Sir Alex Ferguson’s press conference on Tuesday. It wasn’t so much the revelation that Rooney wants out of Old Trafford that left the press pack gobsmacked. Rooney’s ‘people’ had been leaking rumours of his rift with Fergie all week. No, it was the plaintive demeanour of the normally belligerent Sir Alex which was jawdropping. We’re used to the purple-faced rage, but the spectacle of a wounded and bewildered Fergie took everyone by surprise. ‘We are as bemused as anyone can be, we can’t quite understand why he would want to leave’, lamented a cuckolded Fergie.

This isn’t Fergie’s normal modus operandi. Whenever he falls out with a player – and there have been plenty of casualties over the years – the dispute is normally kept ‘within the family’. Ferguson has frequently shipped out star players whom he felt had become too big for the club. Paul Ince, David Beckham, Roy Keane – all were ruthlessly dispensed with. But the gory details of the disputes with these players were always kept in-house. Whatever you think of Sir Alex, he has always refused to criticise his players in public. It’s an old-fashioned but, I think, positive code of honour. What’s said in the dressing room, stays in the dressing room.

Fergie’s decision to go public on Rooney is already being dissected and deciphered by the media – reading the Roons so to speak. Maybe Fergie has broken with tradition and gone public on Rooney because he feels the old methods of handling players are outdated and ill-suited to a modern PR war. These days, the boundary between public and private is blurred and it’s increasingly difficult for managers or clubs to keep a lid on dressing-room conflict. Players’ agents or PR advisers now routinely leak stories to the media if they’ve fallen out with their manager, want a pay rise, or are agitating for a transfer.

Fergie’s remarkable press conference put the ball firmly in Rooney’s court. By dismissing the rumours of a falling out, Sir Alex was clearly suggesting that the player had other motivations. Money is the obvious explanation. Rooney is reportedly on £90,000 per week at Old Trafford. There is considerable speculation that Manchester City have ‘got at him’ (a form of tapping up lite) and are prepared to pay him over £250,000 a week. City boss Roberto Mancini has denied any approach, but in the coded etiquette of modern football courtship, prospective suitors never declare their love openly.

Is it true that Rooney, whose personal wealth reportedly totals £25million, is little more a money-grabbing mercenary? It doesn’t sit well with his carefully cultivated brand image as a ‘street footballer’ at heart. Rooney obviously isn’t short of a bob or two but that doesn’t mean there is no financial motive. He might not need the extra dosh but a footballer’s salary represents his place in football’s pecking order. If Rooney feels he is undervalued, it’s only in relation to other top footballers. Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford may well have persuaded him that the biggest name in English football should also be the best remunerated. FourFourTwo magazine recently revealed that Rooney has slipped from third to sixth in the rich list of English footballers.

So, we can’t rule out financial motives. But money isn’t the whole story. Sir Alex seemed genuinely nonplussed by Rooney’s refusal to sign a new contract. ‘I was dumbfounded’, said Fergie. ‘Only months before he was saying he was at the greatest club in the world.’ There is a clue in the phrase ‘greatest club’. Rooney’s response the following day implied that he no longer sees United as the greatest club. Rooney says that he refused to sign a new contract because United failed to give him ‘assurances about the continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world’.

Writing off Manchester United, as the old cliché goes, is always ill-advised. But the symptoms of decline are glaringly evident. All but the most one-eyed Red would deny that the current United side are a shadow of the team that won the Champions League in 2008. The failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez is now starting to hurt. Rooney’s sparkling form papered over the cracks for much of last season. But with Rooney unfit and out of form, United’s deficiencies are now exposed. United have drawn five of their eight Premier League games and are acquiring a bad habit of blowing two-goal leads. On this form, they look nothing like title contenders.

But while their current form is patchy, a far greater concern to United fans is the club’s diminishing ability to compete on the transfer market. United lost out to Real Madrid in the race to sign Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil. If they lose Rooney, just as they lost Ronaldo and Tevez to wealthier clubs, it will underline the extent to which United have become a selling club. United fans quite rightly fear that the club’s decline will not be halted as long as the Glazers are in charge of the club. As the anti-Glazer protesters see it, the revenues that ought to be reinvested in the playing squad are instead being used to service the club’s crippling £521million debts.

Even more galling is their inability to match the financial clout of their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City. If City were able to poach United’s prize asset it would be a hugely symbolic. It would represent, as The Times put it, a ‘seismic power shift within English football’. If Rooney is indeed thinking the unthinkable – defecting from United to City – this won’t just mean the end of an affair; it could signal the end of an empire.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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Topics Politics

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