Having been a devoted Manchester United supporter for the last 15 years, I thought I knew what to expect from Sir Alex Ferguson's press conference yesterday in the lead-up to United's Champions League match with Bursaspor today. Now apporaching his seventies, Sir Alex is one of very few remaining pillars of old-school sports management where the club is always bigger than those that make up its ranks, where not just winning, but winning in the right way, trumps individual accomplishment and accolade; Where the shallow celebrity that accompanies modern-day football is viewed with nothing but contempt and disdain, and where the internal issues of the club remain, at all costs, internal. That's why I expected to learn very little from Ferguson's press conference yesterday. I expected Ferguson to begin by talking about the upcoming match as if nothing had happened, as if we were all imagining this whole Wayne Rooney fiasco. I expected him to dodge questions directly related to the situation, I expected a few remarks like "you'll have to ask the player," not mentioning Rooney by name, typical combative Fergie. I expected the first reporter to dare to broach the subject of Rooney to immediately regret doing so, being lambasted by a seething, red-faced Ferguson.
What we got what was not what I expected.
Instead, what we received was a masterclass in Public Relations from a manager who hasn't enjoyed a 25 year reign at the pinnacle of British, and indeed World Football by not knowing how to communicate with the press, with fans, with players. Ferguson, through sober reasonability and surprising calmness effectively added me to the very long list of people who have at some point underestimated him and quickly realized their mistake. Ferguson, sat down with a half prepared, but seemingly entirely genuine statement that quickly dispelled many of the contentious rumours and theories that have been swirling around Old Trafford for the last few days. Namely, that Rooney had actually asked to leave as early as August, that Rooney was in fact carrying an ankle injury when Ferguson sat him for the match against Sunderland in the lead up to the International break and maybe most importantly, that he and Rooney have never had a bust-up of any kind that would lead to the player demanding to leave.
Rooney lit the fire that has become this saga by contradicting his manager when, after his match for England, Rooney answered a question about his injured ankle that implied that it was, and had been, just fine. When asked why Ferguson then had been saying that Rooney was indeed suffering, the star striker replied simply "I don't know." The list of players to, deliberately or not, contradict Ferguson publicly thereby challenging his power, only to be shipped out mercilessly is a well known and star-studded one. Paul Ince, David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane all tried Fergie's patience in one way or another and quickly learned that at United, no one is bigger than the club and no one falls out of line. Rooney was deliberately ambiguous in his remarks to lead the public down the path of logic he wished them to follow, without having to be the bad guy. Without coming out and saying anything really, he was leading us to believe that when it was reported he wanted to leave, that it must have had something to do with Ferguson's over-bearing control of the team. Rooney left our imaginations soaring. Ferguson yesterday very calmly, gently, grounded them.
The reason this instance of insubordination is different from the others mentioned before is that Rooney is firstly supremely more talented than any of the others, and secondly, we'd like to think that he has yet to reach his prime. The others on the list were all (mostly)beloved figures at Old Trafford, but none were indispensable, and the United fans were all well aware of that fact. In this instance however, Rooney currently seems United's only hope of contending for a title so when it seemed that fans had to pick a side, Fergie or Rooney, you'll have to forgive those that thought perhaps Rooney should be given whatever it would take for him to stay in the name of the team's performance. What Ferguson's did yesterday was make it clear to fans that it wasn't a case of Ferguson or Rooney, but rather United or Rooney. The difference at a glance may appear slight, but it is in fact vastly different. No longer are you left to choose who is better for the club, but rather what's more important, the club or Rooney? That's a tussle no one has a chance of winning.
The beauty of Ferguson's statement then really lies in the manipulating effect it has on the situation. By clearing up all of the hearsay that Rooney was unwilling to himself dispel, it sheds Ferguson in a much more positive light. Ferguson has portrayed himself, and more importantly the club, as the injured party here and asks questions of Rooney's professionalism when discussing his reaction to Rooney's desire to leave:
"'The only thing I want from you is to respect the club's position and its traditions and behave like a proper professional and we will try to see it through'. And, you know, I don't know if he has done that. I have my doubts about that because reading all these things about him falling out with me and all that nonsense, it's disappointing because we have done everything we possibly can to help Wayne Rooney."
Ferguson came across yesterday as a defender of the club's principles, someone who has done everything he can to help his players and Wayne Rooney specifically. He talked of being "shocked" "disappointed" "bemused" at Rooney's demands. He didn't come across at all as angry or even worse, responsible. He answered all the questions we could have asked of him and even helped us come up with a few to ask Rooney, thereby leaving it up to Rooney to either contradict Ferguson's statements directly or admit that it is his desire and his alone to leave the club.
Rooney would be the third high-profile player to have left United in the past few seasons, behind Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez's move across town to hated rivals Manchester City. Even though Tevez left for City, and such a move requires vocal abuse whenever the player returns, there is a certain understanding from fans that the money it required to keep Tevez (as his rights were owned by a third party and therefore the transfer fee was almost non-negotiable) was simply outside what United was willing to spend and therefore a certain benevolence and respect towards Tevez. With Ronaldo, we learned after the fact that his transfer to Madrid had been agreed upon a year prior. While fans felt a sense of immense loss, it was understood that as an Iberian, it had been his dream to play for Madrid and so we were grateful for the extra year he had put in for the good of the club. When he moved to Madrid, Ronaldo was full of praise for everything United: fans, manager, tradition, and even went so far as to not rule out a return later in his career. Ronaldo then remains a hero at Old Trafford. Rooney seems to be started down a path far more insufferable to United fans than that of the other two: ungrateful, selfish and disrespectful is how Wayne Rooney will be remembered at United should he fail to turn around from the threshold is getting ever closer to crossing, and repent. He will be despised even more so if rumours are true and he'd prefer a move to Man City rather than Madrid or Chelsea, the only other clubs able to afford him. Never will a United player so quickly have gone from Legend to leper in the eyes of the fans.