They are piling on Wayne Rooney in England these days.
“Is Rooney fit for purpose?” asked a headline in Wednesday’s Daily Mail? “United ready to sell ‘reject’ Rooney,” was the Mirror’s effort. And The Sun, for which it’s not a headline unless it’s an embarrassing play on words, led with, “£25m and Roo can have him.”
You can stop gagging now.
For an industry that relies on rumour and the stretching of the truth to attract readers and revenue, it’s really not all that surprising that the English press establishment is going as far as they can with the three items that, when combined, seem to tell them that Rooney is poised to leave Manchester United.
Individually, however, those three items say nothing of the sort. Of course, examining the words and context of information that serves as a story’s spine, without trying to reach for far-off possibilities, is far less exciting than, say, creating a transfer rumour. However, in the search for truth, it’s a necessary exercise.
And so, we will examine those items for what they are, letting the language and context guide our judgement, forgoing the hysterical headlines and incessant rumour-mongering.
Item 1: Rooney started Tuesday’s match on the bench. We know this because that’s precisely where he sat, barring warm-ups, until replacing Tom Cleverley in the 73rd minute at Old Trafford.
Now, Rooney has started on the bench before, but the thinking goes that against an opponent such as Real Madrid, and with progression in the Champions League at stake, the 27-year-old should have been named to the starting XI. Given that he is one of United’s best players, and certainly its highest-paid, that’s a safe conclusion to arrive at.
That said, the players who started for Sir Alex Ferguson executed the manager’s tactics to perfection until Nani’s ejection in the 56th minute changed everything. Sometimes a game plan requires an individual, even one as high-profile as Rooney, to play his part from the bench.
Item 2: An unnamed source. Unnamed sources are vital to journalism, provided they’re used properly. And protection of those sources (i.e. keeping them unnamed) is an important part of the process. These sources can be useful in telling a story, but when it comes to sports they’re either unnecessary or serving an ulterior motive nine times out of 10.
This is because professional sports is an entertainment industry. National security doesn’t hinge on it (not much, anyway), and the public interest in it is little more than a rooting interest. Much like a player agent, who will plant a transfer rumour here and there to spark interest in his client (transfers, after all, are how agents make most of their money), an unnamed source at a football ground can be used to give momentum to a story the press is trying to push.
Conceivably, a groundsman who mumbles his opinion about something to an overhearing journalist can be cited as an unnamed source, as could a low-ranking clerk or member of the coaching staff who happens to dislike a particular player.
An unnamed source was used as the primary piece of information for the stories run by the Daily Mail and Independent, and the nugget he or she provided was that the relationship between Rooney and Ferguson had become “tense.” Tense. Serious stuff. As if a manger would never have concerns about the fitness and form of one of his players, especially his best player.
But think about this for a moment. What could possibly be in it for the unnamed source? Why squeal? Why serve to de-stabilise your own football club, your employer? Especially when what’s being talked about is the possible strengthening of an opponent by the acquisition of one of your own players.
It makes absolutely no sense. And then there’s the fact that European football clubs tend to be far better gate-keepers than the sports franchises of North America. It’s not easy to gain any sort of meaningful access. The unnamed source might just as well have been the secretary who answered the phone, or someone with a position of similar influence at the club.
To sum up, when an unnamed source is cited in a football story where the idea of a transfer is being bandied about, what you’re reading is pretty much bunk.
Item 3: Michael Owen. He did an exclusive interview with talkSport on Wednesday and was asked about the Rooney benching. His response:
A couple of years ago, if Wayne wasn’t the first-choice striker, [Ferguson] would have played him in left midfield or in behind the striker. For him not to start is a real kick in the teeth. Obviously Wayne has got to get his head down now and start recapturing his best form.
He was then asked about the Rooney-Ferguson relationship.
When I was at Manchester United their relationship was very good. They talked, shared jokes and there were no problems whatsoever. I’d be surprised if it was [a falling out], but the decision to leave him out isn’t going to help if it is that.
Owen makes two important points. One, that Rooney would typically be used elsewhere if not right up top (this remark shows Owen’s own lack of tactical nous, as Rooney hasn’t played as an out-and-out striker since 2007), and two, that he didn’t imagine a falling out between Rooney and Ferguson had taken place.
And no one does know. They can only speculate. And to somehow conclude that Rooney is now for sale and that United will ask for around £20 million for him is to grasp for information that simply isn’t there. How do you consider a player to be on the transfer list, nevermind slapping a price tag on him, from a single match where he started from the bench and came on to play 17 minutes? It’s certainly not a conclusion arrived at from reason.
But there’s a final item as well, and it’s the real explanation for why Wayne Rooney won’t be sold this summer, or next summer, or anytime soon.
He’s too good.
Although his goalscoring form can be patchy, Rooney is that rare English attacker who operates from a deep position, isn’t afraid to dribble the ball and can stitch the play together with remarkable accuracy. The Italians have a term for this sort of player: trequartista. They are hard to come by, and when you have one you typically hang on to him.
Sorry folks. Rooney won’t be leaving United based on the items we’ve covered here. And that his benching somehow indicates an Old Trafford exit is an insult to common sense.
We’ll give the last word to one of the most respected football journalists in the business: Mr. Henry Winter.