It was just like any other weekend for football in contemporary Manchester. Team A, the one with all the money and expensive players, grinded out an impressive victory in challenging circumstances to maintain a promising title challenge. Meanwhile, Team B carelessly threw away a two-goal lead before the star player demanded to leave the club because of a row with the manager. Yes, just a normal weekend for football in Manchester.
Except this time, things are different. Previously, were we playing a game of Guess Who? at any point in the last two decades, establishing the identities of Teams A and B with regards to Mancunian football would not be too difficult.
The weekend of 16-17th October 2010 might one day go down as a significant turning point in the timeline of football in Manchester, a point at which a big imaginary pendulum in the cloudy grey skies of this big North West metropolitan borough shifted momentum from Old Trafford to Eastlands in the city’s East.
Since Manchester City were chauffeured to the tailors by billionaire sheikhs in 2008 to be kitted out in luxury robes and bespoke suits, with money no object, there has been plenty of premature ‘Manchester balance of power shifting’ shop talk in the media. It is a seductive narrative after all, and pundits and papers have been only too keen to run with it at any opportunity.
In the years that followed Manchester United’s exquisite ripostes – a league title, two Carling Cups and three agonising/ecstasy-inducing (depending on your allegiances) last minute victories stifled the storyline in style, but the way the two team’s respective seasons have started does hint at something stirring in the water.
Manchester City’s resilient showing at Blackpool was so United-like in it’s denouement that even Sky’s Andy Gray referred to them as ‘Manchester United’ at one point. Ignoring the differences in kit colours and 100 years of history it was hard to tell the difference – City showing the invention, determination, enterprise and immense character of United teams gone by.
Led, of course, by one of United’s own former sons Carlos Tevez. The Argentine’s opening goal instantly brought to mind his last goal for the red half of Manchester, against Wigan in May 2009. Similar instinctive deft flick, same brilliant ingenuity, similar celebration, ‘Fergie sign him up’ chants from the terraces included. The win also had the same callous feel to it that so many United victories have had over the years. City eventually ran Blackpool over with the ruthless drive of a team forcing itself relentlessly towards its own destiny.
The real Manchester United meanwhile meander on in a swath of instability and corporate avarice. It is an odd quirk of United’s season that they are the only Premier League team unbeaten at the moment despite looking like a pale imitation of the swashbuckling braggarts that powered them to two Champions League finals and three consecutive league titles not so long ago. But a string of jaded performances, an uncharacteristic and increasingly frequent tendency to throw away comfortable leads and a squad weaker than at any point in the last four years all combine to give United fans real cause for concern.
Then there is the Wayne Rooney situation. Though nothing is concrete yet, the sources are reliable and under Sir Alex Ferguson there is previous for this sort of spectacular fall-out. The warning signs have been there for a while. A rift between Ferguson and a star player always starts this way. A misunderstanding here. Some telling quotes there. Unexpected omissions from team selection of player by manager, silence, denials, a media blackout and then…
The paternal relationship between Ferguson and Rooney has apparently gone extremely sour in light of revelations about the latter’s extra-marital affairs. Unlike Victoria Beckham, for whom the Scot struggled to mask his distaste, Ferguson holds Rooney’s wife Coleen in high regard. Earlier this year he had this to say about the Rooneys:
“[Wayne] has these wonderful qualities that you don’t get a lot in people today. And I don’t think he will change. His wife [Coleen] seems exactly the same. She’s clued in, wise, clever, she listens.”
Remember when you were a kid, how you knew you’d done something really wrong because rather than tell you off they calmly told you how disappointed they were in you? Such is the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney now, with the former thought to be deeply disappointed by his player’s antics.
In terms of the story’s veracity, the more you put the pieces together the more they seem to fit. Richard Williams writes in The Guardian that “As the product of Croxteth, and of a family with a boxing background, Rooney is less likely to be impressed by intimidation,” and alongside his public shunning of Ferguson on the subject of an ankle injury, Rooney’s comments as recently as May also provide useful insight.
“The manager said to me before the season that I needed to score more headers. But I was playing out wide a lot back then. I said: ‘Do you want me to get on the end of my own crosses?’”
Such comments do not portray a man shaking in fear at the fearsome nature of the notoriously fiery Ferguson.
Nonetheless the news that Rooney actually wants to leave Old Trafford, if genuine and not a power-play in an ongoing contract battle, is hugely significant and a devastating blow to the club. Look at all the great United teams of the Ferguson era and they are characterised by certain players that embodied the time – Cantona in the early nineties, Fergie’s Fledglings a few years later, Keane, Solskjaer, Yorke and Cole in 1999.
More than any others, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney represent the most recent great team that Ferguson built – the Champions League winning side that was supposed to be the final chapter of Ferguon’s enduring legacy – one that would continue winning trophies for years to come, a final, lasting gift to the club he has overseen for a quarter of a century. With Ronaldo gone, Rooney’s departure would represent an amazingly curt beheading of that legacy.
Ferguson does have previous for ridding the club of misbehaving star turns – David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud Van Nistelrooy just a few heads that rolled. But those were all in an era of illustrious wealth for United. Rebuilding resources were readily available. Now under the Glazers, with the club announcing losses of £83.6 million and parent company debts of around £700 million, having to replace Rooney as well as plug growing gaps in other areas of United’s squad looks decidedly complicated.
Not too long ago the Red Devils boasted an attacking quartet of Berbatov, Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney – nicknamed ‘The Fab Four’ by sections of the media. It is remarkable to think that the Bulgarian striker looks like being the last man standing.
If Rooney does leave United only a handful of clubs – including Real Madrid and Manchester City (yes that’s right) – would be able to afford him. Jose Mourinho is known to be after an accomplished centre forward, and asked to name the one player he would most love to work with in football he had this to say:
“I’m going to say it because it is impossible. I would like to coach Rooney, as much for his football as for his mentality.”
Rooney’s mentality has come under scrutiny in recent months, but Mourinho’s wish may not be so impossible after all.