Wayne Rooney has always had a strong sense of his own worth. When he was confirmed fit and returned to the England squad’s hotel at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany he announced his arrival by declaring, “the big man is back in town.”
At 5.30 p.m. on Tuesday night, when Sir Alex Ferguson read out his starting 11 for the Champions League tie against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, it would have become abundantly clear to Rooney he was no longer “the big man” at Manchester United.
It stunned Rooney to realise he could be sacrificed and deemed not worthy of starting United’s biggest game at Old Trafford in five years while relative Champions League novices like Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were selected ahead of him.
By dropping Rooney on Tuesday, Ferguson was seeking a practical solution to combat Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso by using Welbeck’s greater speed and athleticism to smother him, before being able to spring forward on the counter attack, and until the 56th minute when Nani was sent off, it had been working perfectly.
But this appears to represent more than a tactical change for one game. Rooney’s omission has exposed Ferguson’s apparent deeper discontent and could signal the end of his time at Old Trafford.
There have been informed rumours circulating around Manchester for some time that Ferguson has grown increasingly frustrated with Rooney’s fitness and attitude and believes he is now expendable (via The Sun).
His omission from the starting lineup against Madrid has only confirmed these rumours and produced a flurry of headlines that United are now willing to listen to offers to sell Rooney this summer (per Fox Sports).
While Rooney has combined well with Robin van Persie and contributed an impressive 11 goals from 16 starts in the Premier League this season, Ferguson has continued to harbour doubts over his fitness and mobility.
Even on Saturday night after Rooney had helped set up two goals for Shinji Kagawa and scored a stunning effort himself in a 4-0 win over Norwich City, Ferguson tempered his praise by talking about how Rooney had needed that game to regain some of his fitness.
Throughout this season, Ferguson has constantly talked about Rooney’s fitness, as he did this weekend and sought to make it an issue.
It is obvious Rooney has a naturally stocky frame; he is not the same lithe creature as Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, which will allow him to follow them and play into his late 30s.
He needs to work harder to maintain his fitness, and it appears Ferguson might have lost faith in his ability to do this.
There has long been tension between Rooney and Ferguson. Their relationship has never fully recovered from when the player asked for a transfer and publicly questioned the ambition of United, and by extension Ferguson, in October 2010.
At the time, it was a surprise Ferguson didn’t cast him out of Old Trafford for so clearly undermining him, but the United manager can be a pragmatic character, and in that instance he needed him to stay. But possibly he believes he doesn’t need him now.
It is an irony that Rooney wanted United to buy better players, and now, most notably with Robin van Persie, it means he cannot find a place in the team for the biggest game of the season.
Last summer, Ferguson brought in two players, van Persie and Kagawa, that play in positions Rooney likes to inhabit, and there is well-founded speculation that United retain an interest in Borussia Dortmund’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, a signing that would only really be possible if Rooney was no longer at Old Trafford.
This could also serve as a warning to Rooney—for him to raise his game—proving he has not reached his peak and earning another contract before his current one expires in the summer of 2015.
Rooney will want to stay. He is keen to surpass Bobby Charlton as United’s all-time leading scorer, and to his credit, he may come to accept a change in his status, having previously shown he can subvert his own ego, being moved all around the pitch to accommodate first Cristiano Ronaldo and now Robin van Persie.
At the moment, before a very public show of support from Ferguson, Rooney’s future remains in the balance, and after nine years, we may be seeing the final months of his Old Trafford career.